Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Book Review: Strangers At The Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes

Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Scribner
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1439166951
ISBN-13: 978-1439166956

Muse Reviews Rating: 3 laurels
Publisher's Description:

On Thanksgiving Day 2007, as the country teeters on the brink of a recession, three generations of the Olson family gather. Eleanor and Gavin worry about their daughter, a single academic, and her newly adopted Indian child, and about their son, who has been caught in the imploding real-estate bubble. While the Olsons navigate the tensions and secrets that mark their relationships, seventeen-year-old Kijo Jackson and his best friend Spider set out from the nearby housing projects on a mysterious job. A series of tragic events bring these two worlds ever closer, exposing the dangerously thin line between suburban privilege and urban poverty, and culminating in a crime that will change everyone’s life.

In Strangers At The Feast, Jennifer Vanderbes produces the tight, engaging narrative every writer dreams of creating.  From the opening line, Jennifer Vanderbes draws you in and invites you to sit down with her fictional family while they tell their story.  Vanderbes tackles weighty themes ranging from socioeconomics to eminent domain.

I struggled to craft a synopsis that would do justice to Strangers At The Feast.  Simply stating the plot doesn't cover the intricacies of Vanderbes' story.  Unfortunately, the complexity that made Strangers At The Feast appealing to me as a reader also detracted from my experience. 

Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character.  Although this formula gives the reader a feeling of immediacy and intimacy with Vanderbes' characters, they lack the distinctive voices that make the technique successful.  Jennifer Vanderbes also spends more than half of her novel in flashback, in which she treats the reader to history lessons or waxes philosophical about the "emasculation of the American warrior."  While these scenes are well-written, they drag down the book's pacing. 

When I finally reached the climax, Vanderbes rushed through it, and left a number of plot points unresolved.  I was far more interested in the subplot involving Ginny Olson's adopted Indian daughter than in Douglas Olson's marital difficulties and was disappointed that I didn't get to see more of Priya.  Despite lagging a bit in the middle, Strangers At The Feast is a quick read.  Fans of literary fiction will enjoy Jennifer Vanderbes' skill with words and appreciate the depth of her research into a wide variety of topics. 

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