Holiday gatherings are always fodder for secrets to emerge and family dysfunction to run rampant. Long Island novelist, Brenda Janowitz’s fifth novel, “The Dinner Party” (St. Martin’s Press – 286 pages) humorously portrays a suburban Connecticut Passover dinner. The matriarch, Sylvia Gold, prepares to host the Rothschild’s of New York City, a legendary banking family, at her home. This work of fiction will resonate with mothers from all walks of life as it explores the varied levels of family dynamics and class structure that play out over the course of this holiday dinner.
Sylvia’s is an overbearing mother. Her impeccable taste and planning is second to none as she strives to maintain the perfect appearance for the Rothschild family. Her youngest daughter, after all, is dating their son. Although Sylvia has made everything perfect down to the linen napkins, she can’t control the path the evening follows and she watches it unravel before her eyes. Sylvia nearly dies when the unacceptable beau of her middle daughter, Sarah, makes a FaceTime call to his father in prison at the dinner table. When Sylvia thinks things can’t worse her eldest, the prodigal son, surprises the family with a visit and an unexpected fiancée.
Sylvia’s concern with appearances and her obsession with her children marrying to her specifications are apparent. Yet, as this dinner turns out to be a night that is definitely different from all other nights Sylvia learns she must let go and shift her values in order to keep the fragile relationships with her children intact, especially with her middle daughter. After all, “Sarah would rather be accused of murdering puppies than being like her mother.”
The Dinner Party is fast paced and witty. It is cleverly told through the voices of the colorful characters attending the Seder. Janowitz has a knack for capturing the nuanced tone of each character’s personality in such a real way that the reader feels as if she is at a dinner party with her own family members. Like the spokes on a wheel, the subplots of this story outline various relationships that all feed into the central theme.
The plot also references specific parts of a traditional Seder dinner in a way that is identifiable and enjoyable, even for non-Jews. After all, the crux of this story centers on the importance of accepting children for who they are and allowing them to live their own lives, a lesson that transcends religion.