The Dinner Party
The Dinner Party: A Novel by Brenda Janowitz. (St. Martin’s Griffin, 304 pp. $15.99)
Beginning at Pesah and ending five months later at Rosh Hashanah, this domestic tale offers a heartfelt but at times too earnest sitcom take on the trials and tribulations of the Golds, an upper-middle-class Jewish family from Connecticut. The father, Alan, is a doctor, as is his son, Gideon. His wife, Sylvia, is a former nurse and Jewish mother extraordinaire. Daughter Sarah is a fashion magazine editor; another daughter, Becca, is in medical school.
They seem close-knit, but once the Seder begins, fissures appear—as latent hostilities emerge among relatives who haven’t seen each other in a while. Sylvia has invited the Rothschilds of New York—Ursella, Edmond and their aimless son, Henry, who is dating Becca. Reluctantly, and at the last minute, Sylvia has also asked Sarah’s working-class Italian boyfriend’s mother, Valentina. Valentina’s husband, Dominic, can’t come because he’s in prison though, not to worry, he’s able to join in the festivities via Skype.
The night is surely different from all others. Sarah quickly senses trouble and helps herself to wine before the service calls for it. More liquid sustenance follows, especially after Gideon, reportedly in Sri Lanka with Doctors Without Borders, shows up with Malika, a black woman. Assuming Malika knows nothing of Western ways, Valentina rudely blurts out, “Do you speak English?” Sylvia, who discovers secrets about Sarah, stops speaking to her, much to Alan’s dismay. Still, they finesse the dinner; after all, “a holiday is still a holiday.” Months pass, and as Rosh Hashanah approaches, acceptance and forgiveness are in the air. Warm memories emerge and Sylvia learns to let go of perceived hostilities and anger.
The Dinner Party, Janowitz’s fifth novel, has upbeat charm, but as a work of fiction it is predictable. Sylvia seems to be the main player, but the narrative shifts inexplicably to other characters, other points of view, and the comic scenes, visual and auditory, seem contrived. Janowitz majored in human service studies, concentrating on race and discrimination before going to law school. If only she had plumbed these areas for a convincing motive not only to explain Sylvia’s biases and her recovery as a loving mother but also the altered behavior of other characters as well.
However engaging, the novel does not rise much above a surface take on contemporary manners and mores, and though Judaism informs the plot, it does not seem essential. Still, some readers might find it nostalgic fun in its recollection of Seders past in homes where the occasion still marked a welcome coming together of family, however challenging.