For the first time, I am reviewing two books in one post.  Unknowingly, I chose to read two books dealing with a similar premise in close succession.  I found myself comparing the actions and reactions of the characters in the two books when placed untenable situations.  I’m afraid this post may be a little spoiler-y so continue at your own risk.








In Defending Jacob,  a child is murdered, and District Attorney Andy Barber is working the case. As the schoolmates of the victim are interviewed, a suspect is revealed, and to Andy’s horror, it is his own son, Jacob.

But Jacob’s a normal fourteen year old, right? Sure, a little quirky and shy and awkward, but of course, completely incapable of murder, right?

So begins the premise of William Landay’s Defending Jacob.  Andy Barber finds himself on the other side of the courtroom, supporting his son, the defendant.  Ostracized by their neighbors and former friends, Andy and his wife, Laurie, stand by their son.

In The Dinner, two couples meet for a dinner none is excited about. After all the polite conversation and reminiscing, the talk turns to the children, of course. But in this instance, the privileged fifteen year old sons of the couples share accountability for a terrible incident.  And like Defending Jacob, The Dinner explores how far parents are willing to go to protect their children.

Both books are an examination of the parent-child relationship and an exploration towards the instinct of self-preservation.  Both also touch on whether a tendency towards violence can be inherited. And both books do this in very different ways.

In Defending Jacob, I found myself sympathetic towards Andy and Laurie Barber. Andy, because he truly believes, and wants to believe, that his son is absolutely innocent. Laurie, because she sees the situation and fears in her bones that her son may be guilty.

On the other hand, Claire and Paul, and Serge and Babette, the parents at the center of The Dinner, seem to have a much more laissez-faire approach to the acts of their children.  Perhaps, they say, some people deserve to be victims, deserve whatever happens to them.  The empathy I felt for the parents in Defending Jacob was nowhere to be found in The Dinner.  In fact, I was appalled by the reactions of the parents, and didn’t really like any of them.  But what author Herman Koch did with that is still make me wonder what I would do, really, if I were in this situation.  Perhaps what I didn’t like about Claire and Paul wasn’t so much that they didn’t do what most of us characterize as “right”, but that if I looked at the deepest parts of myself, I’m not entirely certain that I would not make the same choices they do.

In both stories, there are signs that the kids are not all right.  The reactions in both books are similar to a small degree- a desire to explain away the signs, ignore them, children will be children, it will be all right, blah, blah, blah.  But as more is revealed, each parent makes choices in the extreme for how to deal with the situations, and they are at opposite ends of the spectrum.  One I found tragic and sympathetic; the other, appalling and dangerous.

The Dinner is written with more tension- I wanted to know what happened, and this seemed to be a very long dinner to finally get to that part of the story, but the build up was worth the wait. Koch sprinkles contextual clues that will explain the characters’ choices as more of the plot is revealed. Defending Jacob takes the tension in a different way- we really don’t know definitively of guilt or innocence, which makes the parents’ choices that much more interesting. But the tension I felt reading The Dinner is not in Defending Jacob.

Both were good, entertaining, and fast paced reads that I am telling friends to put on their must-read list. I’m also suggesting they read them close together and do some comparison of their own.