Summer House with Swimming Pool
I became an instant must-read fan of Herman Koch last year with the publication of THE DINNER, a disturbing psychological drama that displayed his literary talents in full. SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL explores similar themes --- such as family and social mores --- but in a different way. Here Koch presents a work reminiscent of a literary LAST SUMMER by Evan Hunter, or perhaps one of John Barth’s earlier works, but with more of an eye toward exploring the cracks and crevices within relationships, the ones we forget, deliberately and otherwise.
SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL commences with the narrator, Dr. Marc Schlosser, at the edge of the precipice of major professional trouble. As Schlosser is quick to tell us, he is a general practice physician who is a sort of “doctor to the stars,” if you will, numbering actors, directors and authors among his patients. The secret to his success is that he spends 20 minutes per visit with each of his patients, even though he just as easily could conclude each appointment in under five minutes. He conducts his examination, makes a diagnosis, prescribes a medication or makes a referral to a specialist, and then listens to the patients ramble on about their lives. It soon becomes clear to the reader that Schlosser is not thrilled to be practicing medicine. He is repulsed by the human body, and his mind wanders in a barely disguised ennui.
"SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL is an intriguing and compelling character study on several levels, one that haunts readers from first page to last."
What has Schlosser in trouble, however, is that he has just lost a patient, an actor named Ralph Meier, who was also a friend. Every doctor eventually loses all his patients to age or illness --- that is a given. In Meier’s case, the loss appears to have been due to Schlosser’s professional negligence (malpractice) at the very least, and possibly more than that. He doesn’t seem to be especially worried about the outcome of his disciplinary hearing; in fact, he’s more concerned with Meier’s wife confronting him angrily in his office.
Schlosser’s narrative shifts back in time to about a year before, when he and his family --- his wife, Carolyn, and their adolescent daughters, Julia and Lisa --- undertook a momentous family vacation. Koch devotes a great deal of the first half of the book to setting up the vacation and putting the family on the road for what is supposed to be a camping trip but winds up with the family camping out, so to speak, at Meier’s vacation home. Schlosser, with a subtle Machiavellian efficiency, has set up a chance encounter with his patient and friend, but has his reasons, one involving Meier’s wife. There are also a couple of other houseguests, including Meier’s two teenage sons --- who are quickly smitten with Schlosser’s hot-to-trot daughters --- as well as an American film director who has cast Meier in a television production, and his girlfriend, some four decades his junior.
Under the food, alcohol and sex, there is enough unease and tension that one expects things to go horribly wrong. They ultimately do after a few days. When the bad occurs, it happens quite suddenly and within the space of an hour or so. Afterward, everything is forever changed, and Schlosser begins an impulsive program of revenge that will have further repercussions, intended and otherwise. But it is not until the end of SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL that Koch pulls the curtain all the way back --- in such a subtle manner that you never see it coming --- and the reader gets the full sense not only of what has happened but also of what has not occurred, as well as who is to blame and who is not at fault. Yes, there are victims and wrongdoers here, but you will have to get to the end of the book while making a list and checking it twice.
SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL is an intriguing and compelling character study on several levels, one that haunts readers from first page to last. Koch does not permit his audience to look away, not from anything (if I ever get an abscess in one of my eyes, just kill me quickly, please), so you are almost guaranteed to flinch more than once. This is a book that, like the best of them, is simultaneously dangerous and unforgettable. Strongly recommended, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 3, 2014