A Review of Jennifer Vanderbes’ Strangers at the Feast (by Bethany)

stranger at the feast

This novel is a quick, engaging read. It follows the standard ‘converging lines’ plot structure: two sets of characters are introduced early on, and initially it is not clear how the two sets are connected. Soon a couple of hints are dropped: the name of a minor character or other third party appears in both plots, one set of characters is in a car headed toward a location familiar from the other plot line, etc. Three novels that come to mind as using this structure well are Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog, Joanne Harris’ Gentlemen and Players, and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and Vanderbes novel, while not quite as masterful as these, uses this technique fairly well.

In the abstract, it seems to me that the converging lines plot structure is most often used in novels that deal with matters of race, class, and social justice. The general message of the converging lines plot seems to be that reality is subjective. Within the context of its own familiar world, Character Set A is competent, reasonable, and sympathetic, and the same is true of Character Set B in the context of its (necessarily different) milieu. Early in a converging lines novel, one character group leaves its own comfortable, familiar surroundings and enters the world of the other character group. These novels tend not to end well, and whatever disaster that happens at the end is understood (by the reader, but not necessarily by the characters) to be the preventable result of misunderstandings, missed cultural cues, and inadequate sympathy.

But enough about Character Set A and Character Set B: let’s talk about the specifics of Vanderbes’ novel. It is the fall of 2007, and the Olson family is gathering for Thanksgiving. Unmarried adult daughter Ginny is hosting the family for the first time in the home she has just purchased. Ginny is an anthropology professor who specializes in American family life, and much is made of the ironic fact that she has built her career around this specialty but has no domestic impulses of her own. Recently, though, Ginny surprised her family by moving to the suburbs and adopting a little girl from India named Priya. This Thanksgiving dinner will be the first time that Ginny’s family will meet Priya. Each chapter in this novel is told in the third person limited point of view from the perspective of a different character, and Ginny is one of the character from whose perspective some chapters are narrated.

Ginny’s brother Douglas is coming to dinner at Ginny’s house with his wife Denise and their three children. Both Douglas and Denise are point-of-view characters as well. Douglas is a self-described real estate mogul, although he and Denise are secretly aware of the fact that he has dangerously overextended his finances, putting two million dollars of his own money into a construction project – a high-rise office building in Stamford, CT that is now struggling to find businesses that can afford to rent its offices. Douglas is outspokenly critical of Ginny’s house and of Ginny in general, in a way that walks the line between affectionate teasing and true jerkdom. Denise – who has had to (unhappily) return to work as a high school nutritionist in order to offset Douglas’ losses – is kinder on the surface, but in her chapters we learn of her deep frustrations with her husband and his family and of the unsettled childhood that left her desperately afraid of insolvency.

Douglas and Ginny’s parents are Eleanor and Gavin Olson. Gavin is a Yale graduate who was injured in Vietnam and has spent his entire adult life selling insurance, furious that he was never able to make his way into the kind of prestigious career he once expected because of society’s mistrust of Vietnam veterans. He is characterized by distance: his children find him mysterious, and throughout this Thanksgiving dinner, all he wants to do is go home and look at the moon through his telescope. Eleanor Olson is a Wellesley graduate whose life was once devoted to her children and is now devoted to her local Garden Club. She sips wine throughout the novel, always refusing refills but then graciously accepting with an “If you insist…” – her children call this the “refuse and booze” method of managing one’s alcoholism. Eleanor is well-meaning, annoying, and sad.

Ginny’s oven breaks early on Thanksgiving day, and after the family has arrived she discovers that the turkey is barely cooked. The family pauses for a moment of traditional holiday name-calling and recrimination before deciding to pack up all the uncooked food and head to Douglas and Denise’s McMansion. They do so, and Ginny is made to feel awful as Denise saves the day with her efficient domesticity and endless supply of kitchen gadgets.

The story would end here if it weren’t for Character Set B: two black teenaged boys named Kijo and Spider. When the Olsons were all at Ginny’s house, Kijo and Spider broke into Douglas and Denise’s house in order to perform some very specific acts of vandalism. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Kijo and Spider have connections to the Olsons (of course they do – that’s how converging lines plots always work) – specifically, they come from families that were forced out of their homes due to the construction of Douglas’ company’s skyscraper, and they attend the school where Denise works as a nutritionist, and they have targeted the Olson family specifically to be taught a lesson. And then there are knives and guns and chaos, and Priya (who has always been mute) says her first word. And then the police arrive.

Vanderbes manages this cast of characters well. She drops just enough hints about the actions of Kijo and Spider and about the secrets of the Olson family to keep the plot quick and suspenseful – this is a great vacation read and fits perfectly into a weekend or plane trip. I find myself wanting to judge this book more harshly than it probably deserves, and I think this is because the converging lines plot has become a cliché. Its purpose – to demonstrate that we all have our stories, that reality is subjective, and that actions have unexpected consequences – is a worthy one, but not all worthy purposes add up to art, especially when they are used over and over and over again. I suppose novels like this one are the great-grandchildren of novels like The Sound and the Fury and Ulysses, and as such I suppose they’re the great-great grandchildren of the novels of George Eliot and Tolstoy, who both used the omniscient point of view to showcase the experiences of a variety of different characters that cross economic, class, and gender lines. And of course the distant ancestor of all of these novels is Shakespeare, who placed Prince Hal side by side with Falstaff and Lear side by side with his Fool.

I hate to say it, but I think the converging lines plot device needs to die. It’s not new and original anymore. Novels with well-drawn characters will never be out of date, of course, and Vanderbes deserves a lot of credit for characterization here. But as I was reading this book, I kept hearing a voice in my head that whispered I’m done. I’d like my sociology lessons in a different package next time, please.

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4 Responses to A Review of Jennifer Vanderbes’ Strangers at the Feast (by Bethany)

  1. badkitty1016 says:

    I have not read as many of the converging lines novels as I’ve read what I call “pleural narrative” novels. That’s what I call the books that have plot lines that take place in two different years that are somehow mysteriously connected. I feel about those the way you feel about converging lines novels:Was a great idea originally, now it’s overdone, and needs to be put to rest.

    • bedstrom says:

      I think I would class those as converging lines – as long as the connection between the plots is clear by the end. Are you thinking of books like Sarah’s Key? I hated that book.

      • badkitty1016 says:

        Yes, like Sarah’s Key. That book was not awesome. I’m going to try to figure out good versions of this subset of converging lines. I don’t know that I’ve read a good one, though I own quite a few.

      • bedstrom says:

        I’ve definitely read others… modern day archaeologist digs something up, people long ago use that thing in real life, etc. I can’t think of any specifics right now.

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