Title: Strangers at the Feast
Author: Jennifer Vanderbes
Release Date: August 3, 2010
Genre: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Strangers at the Feast follows the Olson family over the course of one fateful Thanksgiving Day. Ginny Olson is a professor who has just returned from a trip to India, surprising her family by adopting a seven year old girl from an orphanage there. Her brother Douglas is wealthy but invested his family’s money badly and has been in some financial trouble; his wife, Denise, seems to despise him for these missteps. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, two young men are making preparations for an event that will bring these two groups together in a startling way.
I absolutely adored Jennifer Vanderbes’ debut novel, Easter Island, and have been waiting not-so-patiently for her sophomore release. I loved the historical mystery presented in that novel, as well as the exotic setting of Easter Island. Strangers at the Feast is such a different novel that it’s difficult to remember that they are by the same author.
There is a sense of foreboding that hangs over this entire novel. Vanderbes hints at it multiple times, keeping it at the forefront of the reader’s mind as they consume the book. As a result, the reader is constantly guessing – what’s going to happen? Is someone going to die? If so, who? It provides a driving force other than the characters’ stories and development to propel the novel forward.
The characters in Strangers at the Feast are beautifully rendered. Ginny is an uncertain new mother, hopeful she can provide a good life for Priya but unsure if she is capable of doing so. She has also been unlucky in love. She is trying to cook Thanksgiving dinner for her family, to bring them together, but it appears she can’t even do that correctly. Meanwhile, Denise, Douglas’ wife, watches coolly but critically over the entire situation. Her wry observations provide this serious novel with welcome humor. Gavin, Ginny’s father, is a former Vietnam vet who has never quite recovered from his experiences. Not from Vietnam itself, but from the aftermath – from his return and the discovery that soldiers were neither respected nor wanted. His trouble finding a job and the rudeness he encountered in his community, just because he was a veteran who chose to serve his country, haunt him to this day.
Indeed, Strangers at the Feast is a veritable feast (no pun intended) of themes and messages. Ginny wrote an entire paper on the emasculation of the American male soldier, which Gavin finds and reads. The demise of the male warrior is a major theme that runs through this book, as is class and racial warfare. Vanderbes deftly explores the differences between whites and blacks, haves and have nots and makes them very stark. The placement of money above all other values is also a central focus of this book, the loss of American values as we pursue monetary wealth with increasing abandon. Vanderbes weaves a running commentary through her novel, but never bludgeons the reader with it. The messages of the novel are subtle and easy to ignore if the reader just wants to focus on the characters.
Strangers at the Feast was not what I was expecting after Easter Island. It’s so different, but I’m glad that didn’t prejudice me against this novel. Strangers at the Feast is a beautifully written portrait of one family, and the things that can bring them together and tear them apart.