The Dinner Party by Brenda Janowitz. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016. 256 pages. $15.99.
Take one young man from a famous and wealthy family who is adept at doing nothing. Partner him with the younger daughter in an obsessively hard-working, upper-middle-class Jewish family. Stir in another daughter who is living with a non-Jewish man whose father is in prison. Season with some unexpected events and, letting complex family relationships run their courses, allow this concoction to simmer for about six months. Finally, be prepared for surprises.
That, in a literary nutshell, is The Dinner Party.
The novel’s initial setting is a Passover seder, a very special seder for the Gold family.
It’s no accident that the publisher is planning its release some 10 days before this year’s celebration of the Exodus and the creation of the Jewish nation.
And it culminates at the quintessential Jewish season of absolution, at Rosh Hashanah, when we pardon each other’s shortcomings in the hopes that God will follow our lead when it comes to our own sins.
Most American Jews would feel comfortable attending the Gold family seder, with its abbreviated holiday ritual mixed with lots of good food and talk. The Golds are not an atypical Jewish family — an accomplished father, Alan, head of pediatric cardiology at Connecticut Children’s Hospital; Sylvia, a ferociously ambitious mother; and children — Gideon in Sri Lanka with Doctors Without Borders; Sarah, an editor of a fashion magazine whose live-in boyfriend is not Jewish; and Becca, a medical school student — all of whom are driven hard by their mother to succeed.
But at this year’s seder, Becca would be bringing home her new boyfriend, a Rothschild — yes, of the Rothschilds of international banking fame — and his parents.
Becca’s mother was more than a little excited by the prospect: “Sylvia’s pulse quickened when she discovered that her daughter’s new boyfriend was a Rothschild. When Becca asked if his parents could attend the seder, too, Sylvia all but fainted.”
She “looked at the house differently” after she knew who her guests would be. Sylvia had a painter “freshen things up” around the house and had the kitchen, powder room and front door repainted. She changed the towels in the guest bathroom and bought matching napkins for the bar. And she replaced her good tablecloth.
But Sylvia Gold might have been less enthusiastic had she known more about Becca’s beau, Henry, and the attitude of his parents toward their son’s new girlfriend.
Henry Rothschild’s parents apparently had never taught him about the responsibilities that go with great wealth, had not acquainted him with that singular phrase that seems to provide justification, at least in the minds of the super affluent, for their enormous riches: Noblesse oblige.
He was spoiled and self-centered, the mirror image of his work-obsessed girlfriend. “It never dawned on him that once he left the golden cage of the Upper East Side, that life would be different. He still expected to lead the same life he’d led up until that point — a life filled with domestics, women who lusted after him, and everything he ever wanted served up for him on a silver platter.”
So while Sylvia fantasized about what having a Rothschild as a son-in-law would be like, Henry’s parents had different dreams. Banker Edmond Rothschild was disappointed in his son Henry — no Ivy League school would accept him, and he had been thrown out of the University of Florida for cheating — and thought: “This girl. This girl with her impressive family and medical school background— she was the answer. She would set Henry straight. She would make him a better man.”
As if trying to bring together two such diverse children and their families wasn’t difficult enough, also at the seder: cooking-obsessed Valentina, the Italian mother of Sarah’s Joe, whose husband, and Joe’s father, Dominic, is in prison; and Gideon, who surprises the family by coming home on Pesach with his new girlfriend, a black woman who turns out to be Jewish.
Those are only a few of the many surprises found in The Dinner Party — so many, in fact, that I found myself laughing aloud in astonishment at some of the complicated twists and 90-degree turns.
Some but not all are straightened out in this amusing — and, at times moving — book.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.