05 September 2011

Book Review: Strangers at the Feast

Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.  Because I seem to have gotten myself not only on an advance access reading list from Simon & Schuster, but on their mailing list for finished copies of books, too.  About a month ago I received a copy of Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes from the good folks at Scribner, along with a copy of The Hundred Foot Journey (reviewed here), which makes me suspect that it might be a mailing list catering to bookclubs. 

I barely remember seeing this book in hardcover when it was published last year and I don't think I really knew anything about it, but when I picked up the paperback I was mildly intrigued to read the synopsis: On Thanksgiving Day 2007, as the country teeters on the brink of a recession, three generations of the Olson family gather.  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.  Little does either party know that their paths are about to cross in fateful ways. 

While this book doesn't go as far in certain directions as I was hoping for, Vanderbes does a very neat job linking up the antecedent and postcedent storylines for each character. It's mostly a story of race, wealth, and privilege, the restrictions of class and gender, the politics of war, and family ties that are so twisted that there's no hope of unraveling them.  Much of it is heartbreaking in its unflinching realities, and knowing in the end that the real "perps" don't get any comeuppance is both revealing and extremely uncomfortable, at least for this reader.

Some of the passages that I turned down while reading:

From one of Kijo's chapters: "From the decorations around the house, it was hard to tell who Grandma Rose thought more highly of: Jesus or Elvis Presley.  Jesus hing in the bathroom, kitchen, living room, and Kijo's room, but not in Grandma's bedroom.  A signed photo of Elvis sat propped o her nightstand beside a photo of her late husband.  A framed Elvis album hung over her bureau.  Kijo figured Jesus probably wouldn't like the lady friends who sometimes stayed the night" (184).

From one of Eleanor's (the matriarch of the Olson clan) chapters: "But Eleanor did no believe in complaining.  She merely sat with Marybeth and other friends in one of their living rooms, reminiscing about the days they wore miniskirts--oh, how Eleanor had loved showing off her legs.  The days when waiters promptly appeared at their tables and flirted.  When salesgirls eyed their pocketbooks and asked, eagerly, how they could be of help.  When they opened magazines and turned on televisions and recognized their beautiful trim selves.

But Eleanor waved away any regret: she had been a wife, a mother. She had done wonderful and important things.  How could she be sad that the world didn't congratulate her for what was a reward in and of itself? "


  1. Great review. I read this a month ago and I thought it was very good. "Unflinching realities" is a good way to describe the writing in this book.

  2. Love that review and now another to add to the TBR. Keep 'em coming Crowe!

  3. Right about now I need something other than "unflinching realitites," but I will certainly pick this up when spending time at Maine Coast Bookstore.

    Maybe someday I'll be able to stop at yours!

    All joys,



Please, sir, may I have some more? (Comments, that is!)