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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Summer House
with Swimming Pool

Herman Koch

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To purchase Summer House with Swimming Pool

Title: Summer House with Swimming Pool
Author: Herman Koch
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 387 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Summer House with Swimming Pool - US
Summer House with Swimming Pool - UK
Summer House with Swimming Pool - Canada
Summer House with Swimming Pool - India
Villa avec piscine - France
Sommerhaus mit Swimmingpool - Deutschland
Villetta con piscina - Italia
Casa de verano con piscina - España
  • Dutch title: Zomerhuis met zwembad
  • Translated by Sam Garrett

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Our Assessment:

B : solidly tension-sustaining, and certainly piles on the unsavoriness

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B 11/6/2014 Keith Staskiewicz
Evening Standard . 10/7/2014 Melanie McGrath
The Independent . 3/7/2014 Arifa Akbar
The NY Times . 9/6/2014 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. C 13/7/2014 Lionel Shriver
The Washington Post . 27/6/2014 Ron Charles

  From the Reviews:
  • "Summer House With Swimming Pool is a gripping read, an assault of unexpected twists and thumbscrew-turning tension, but there's also an unshakable unpleasantness squirming inside it, like a worm burrowed deep into a crisp red apple." - Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Koch makes the easy but fatal mistake of sacrificing character to plot and what begins as a taut, muscular and deliciously cynical portrait of an unhinged soul, reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith or perhaps Michel Houellebecq, grows somewhat soft and paunchy in midlife." - Melanie McGrath, Evening Standard

  • "More problematically, the narrative seems gimmicky at times, with some repeating literary ticks -- Koch conspicuously withholds information from the reader, delaying its telling, and there are a few too many doomy metaphors. Yet, this book is horribly thrilling, and utterly entertaining. There is a manic clarity and gleefulness to its writing. (...) If I had to recommend a summer read, I would say take this book to the beach, you'll be gripped and chilled, but be warned, you might be left feeling betrayed in the end by its manipulative games." - Arifa Akbar, The Independent

  • "The Dinner had a multicourse structure: It was coarse and simple-minded but tough. Summer House With Swimming Pool is weaker and unhurried, rambling along with no particular destination. Its main emphases are on filth, lechery and jealousy, in about that order." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "It’s straight commercial fiction. (...) But even by the standards of commercial fiction -- the plot hangs together, at least on its own terms; the pace never flags; the ending delivers a proper payoff -- Summer House doesn’t cut the mustard. With this novel in my carry-on bag, I’d opt for the in-flight entertainment. (...) A good psychological thriller ought to end with a crisp, clean twist. This ending is mashed potatoes." - Lionel Shriver, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Sam Garrett’s slightly stilted translation only adds to the reptilian tone of the doctor’s thoughts. (...) Disgust, in fact, is this novel’s terminal condition. (...) I couldn’t stop reading this, but I can’t remember the last time a book made me want to crawl out of my own skin. Chapter by chapter, it is shockingly cynical and infected with a strain of humor so toxic that it should come with a bottle of Purell." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Summer House with Swimming Pool is an odd thriller (of sorts), the first chapters finding narrator Marc Schlosser dealing with the fact that a fairly new patient of his -- he first saw him eighteen months earlier --, the famous stage-actor Ralph Meier, is dead and that he has been summoned to face the Board of Medical Examiners regarding some irregularities, "too serious to just pass over" in his treatment. Specifically, there's the question of whether a year or so earlier Marc took a tissue sample from Ralph and sent it to the hospital for testing, as there appears to be no record of that happening; it presumably would have revealed the nature of Ralph's illness and likely would have led to a course of treatment that could have saved or prolonged his life.
       The bulk of the novel then goes back in time and describes Marc's relationship with Ralph. He is flattered by the attention of the famous actor, and attracted to Ralph's wife, Judith. The gregarious Ralph seems to take a real liking to Marc, as well (and possibly Marc's wife, Caroline); the Meiers also have two sons about the age of the Schlosser's attractive eleven- and thirteen-year-old daughters, Lisa and Julia. Caroline isn't that eager to get all that chummy, but Marc likes the sound of Ralph's summer house with swimming poll they've rented for the summer vacation, and contrives that their own camping trip leads them nearby -- ready to be discovered by Ralph, who promptly insists they come stay on his property. Marc is easily convinced.
       There's another couple at the house, too, an American film director, Stanley, and his much too young girlfriend, Emmanuelle. It's an odd mix, and Marc isn't always enthusiastic about domineering Ralph's ways -- always ordering for everyone at restaurants, leaving Marc hungering for some real meat instead of the constant diet of seafood, or Ralph's insistence on dragging them to out-of-the-way beaches -- but the girls have fun and get along with the Meier-boys.
       Marc isn't a particularly pleasant man. His patients seem to like him because he gives them his time and attention -- he's figured out a system, twenty minutes per patient to let them talk themselves out -- but he's not much of a fan of the human body, or nudity, or ... probing. In fact, he seems rather ill-suited for the medical profession, but does well as a general practitioner, just doing the basic, surface stuff (everything else has to be referred on, in any case), and he admits; "You could, indeed, call me 'easy' when it comes to prescribing certain medicines", which probably helps make him popular among his patients, too. He does eye Judith, but his tastes are staid and simple and conservative; he's repulsed by sexual acts which aren't obviously natural, where the pieces don't seem to be meant to fit -- homosexual sex, for example, and also sex with minors. Ralph's leering eye, his "raptor look" when he stares at Caroline, bothers him some too .....
       Aside from Ralph's grim fate, readers learn early on that something bad happened. Something about which Marc beats himself up repeatedly, wondering whether the outcome could have been different if only he had done this or that differently (something Koch uses very effectively to build the suspense around what happened). But even as the obvious two plus two seems to offer itself -- surely Ralph did something beyond the pale, and Marc exacted revenge -- Koch not only teases his story out but doesn't allow for the easy black and white answers as to what is right and wrong; indeed, Koch's story is one of shades of gray and black, and degrees of wrong.
       Summer House with Swimming Pool is a story of playing god, or judge and executioner. Marc's profession is the ultimate god-playing one, and readers know from early on that he has exercised that power in a questionable way. The question remains open, for a while, whether or not he was justified, but Koch doesn't make it easy for the reader to side with him. This is a book of men with flawed moral compasses, from leering womanizer Ralph (who can explode in anger) to seedy photographer and film director Stanley, to Marc's casual attitude towards a variety of medical ethics.
       Marc does have a strong moral sense about protecting his family -- and his tastes in women tends towards those his own age (making him all the more disgusted at those eyeing the young ones ...) -- but then he also compromises and risks a great deal in pursuing Judith. Others' tastes and proclivities have, to varying degrees, more unsavory sides to them. Yet inescapable, too, is the fact that his daughters, and Julia in particular, are maturing very quickly -- and attracting the sort of attention that comes with that.
       This is a story that could resolve itself fairly neatly. Indeed, very early on readers are told Marc is about to face the Board of Medical Examiners, and this official, outside body could presumably judge and decide what the proper outcome is. Koch, however, doesn't make it quite so simple: society and specifically its authorized representatives are kept largely at bay -- there are several incidents that could (and at least one that certainly should) involve the police, but they are ever called -- and the judgment calls are all made individually.
       The novel not only comes full-circle, but also moves beyond the period described in its first pages, revealing more of what comes after that. Koch doesn't opt for finality, because his story isn't one that's meant to be a neatly tied up tale of a crime and vengeance; rather it's a slice of the human condition -- which, he intimates, will continue as before, a constant stream of similar personal, moral challenges that individuals must (or will choose to) deal with for themselves.
       Koch does suspense very well: repeatedly, there are scenes of incredible tension, where something terrible seems about to happen -- but for the most part the outcomes are anticlimactic. This is intentional, of course: Koch means to toy with the reader in this way. Yet ultimately it is also a bit self-defeating: invariably, the most terrible of the events feels like a bit of a let-down. It makes for a thriller that ultimately feels slightly deflated.
       Koch does excel in this detail-work, whether creating tension or simply having Marc reveal more of himself and his motives -- but in his constant focus on the ugly side to everything, with even Marc's over-protectiveness of his daughters having an unpleasant edge, it can be wearing; certainly it leaves a sour taste.
       Koch's characters, especially the males, are all too human, and Koch loves focusing on their flawed sides. If anything marks the men in the novel, from Marc's medical school mentor to Ralph and Stanley and especially Marc, it's how certain they are of their course and actions. Convinced of their moral (and immoral) codes, they nevertheless don't seem particularly far removed from societal norms; certain actions go beyond the pale (and the law), but can seem more or less justified -- in the heat of the moment, certainly. It makes for an interesting if ugly mirror on society.
       Koch's novel is a strange sort of thriller -- more thrilling in its parts than as a whole -- and offers dark and dubious moral lessons. A fairly good read, Summer House with Swimming Pool is also a decidedly unsavory bite.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 June 2014

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Summer House with Swimming Pool: Reviews: Herman Koch: Other books by Herman Koch under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Herman Koch was born in 1953.

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