Review: The Dinner List

We’ve all been asked the hypothetical question at some point in our lives: If you could have dinner with any 5 people, dead or alive . . . who? and why?

My five changes frequently — sometimes Matthew McConaughey’s on the list, sometimes he’s replaced by John Krasinski (they seem so down-to-earth — how could I not?). My mama is always there, though I alternate between Jodi Picoult and J.K. Rowling on a pretty regular basis. (I’m trembling at the mere thought of being graced by their presence.) Stephen King — duh. Edgar Allan Poe — ditto.

And what would I do if, by some stroke of fortune, we all ended up actually sharing a meal and a few bottles of champ together? Um. Well.

In Rebecca Serle’s debut novel, The Dinner List, this is exactly the predicament Sabrina finds herself in when she arrives at her restaurant birthday-dinner date with her best friend: seated around the table alongside her best friend, Jessica, Sabrina sees her father, her ex-lover, her former philosophy professor, and — gulp! — Audrey-freaking-Hepburn. It’s an initially unfortunate-seeming mishmash of individuals: Audrey’s clearly out of place with the other mere mortals, and Sabrina needs some convincing that the situation is real. But once the cork is popped and appetizers ordered, the table finds itself thrown into the inevitable: serious conversation. Sabrina is forced to confront regrets, frustrations, anxieties, and losses from previous years; not the least of which is her failed relationship with Tobias, the man she’s long considered the love of her life.

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A great deal of this book worked for me: I enjoyed the premise, the storyline trotted along at a quick clip, characters were largely a fun and supportive mix that worked for the scenario. To be honest, I picked this book up thinking it would be a “fluff” read — a little bit of romance, some drama, basic chick-lit — but by the time I was done, I was quite surprised to have had so many feelings while I read. And introspective thoughts. For that, I applaud Serle — she managed to compose a narrative that is seemingly simple and predominantly light, but not without depth.

And while the timeline is all-too-familiar in today’s market — back and forth, past and present — I found it a successful formatting for The Dinner List, in which the “present” portions are noted with the time on the clock (hence creating a countdown vibe that enticed me to stay up until 1 in the morning on a work night) and the flashbacks provide a more adequate portrait of Sabrina and Tobias’s shared history.

In a sense, the novel includes a touch of romance — after all, it is Sabrina and Tobias’s love story — but don’t head into this one expecting anything steamy, sexy, or happy-go-lucky. The pair’s history is fraught with frustrating turns of fate and unfortunate circumstances. But the book is so much more than this love story, too — it’s a tale of redemption, forgiveness, and really, the concept of fate and how our every choice alters fate on a minute-by-minute basis.

My one gripe: Audrey. I know, I know — she’s an icon. She deserved to have a seat at that table, and on several occasions, I felt that seat was well-filled. HOWEVER, for the most part, it seemed Serle became a bit heavy-handed with Audrey’s portions; instead of being another player at the table with a bit of starshine, she became a history lesson for readers and that became a bit tedious. More often than not, it seemed Serle needed to justify her inclusion of Audrey with reasons for Sabrina’s (aka Serle’s?) obsession with the actress, and it wound up feeling like a biography-within-a-novel . . . which took me right out of the story on more than one circumstance.

That being said, the novel is a largely compelling read with an intriguing and witty storyline. I’d recommend it to just about anyone — but I’ll warn you to be wary of the f-word: The Dinner List goes above and beyond fun. It’s downright decadent.

Overall: 4/5 stars.

Thank you to Flatiron Books for sharing a review copy of this title with me! All opinions are my own and were in no way impacted by the publisher.

Review: Before and Again

It isn’t hard to surmise a mother’s worst fear; I’m sure it’s the same the whole world over — losing a child. How does a person survive such a tragedy? With my own child nearly thirteen months old and, in truth, the center of my universe, I refuse to entertain the idea that he might someday leave this world before me. I’d imagine it’s akin to losing a limb, or one’s own sense of identity; children being so much a part of a mother’s makeup.

In Barbara Delinsky’s latest release, Before and Again (out via St. Martin’s Press, June 26), Delinsky touches on just that concept: motherhood after loss.

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Thirty-eight-year-old Maggie Reid once had everything: a successful career as a sculpture artist, a handsome and equally-successful husband, a curious and sweet daughter, and a life of luxury in her Boston community. She once had a different name, too — Mackenzie Cooper. But that was all before — before the accident that took her daughter’s life, before the Mackenzie Cooper law limiting the use of technological devices in vehicles, before the court case and divorce and fallout with her family.

It’s safe to say that Maggie Reid needed Devon, the idyllic Vermont town in which she has redrawn her life as a makeup artist at the well-known Spa and Inn. She’s changed her look (to ward off unwanted recognition after all that unsavory press time) and given up on her former clay sculptures, finding artistic release in the application of blush and liner. She’s remained single for the past five years, kept her head down as her years of probation wound down, and made a handful of “close” friends (only one of whom knows her true identity). Maggie allowed herself to make Devon her home, so it’s a complete shock to her system when one day, everything simply goes amuck.

When Maggie’s friend’s son, Chris, is charged with a felony crime and the feds show up in town, she finds herself in a predicament: how can she remain a good friend to Grace without violating the rules of her probation? Before Maggie gets the chance to resolve this problem, a guest from the past shows up, and her life — her Devon life — is instantly complicated threefold.

Before and Again, as with The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and The Ones We Choose, is reaffirming my decision to sprinkle a bit more chick lit in with my regular reading. These titles go beyond romance and tackle more true-to-life issues that face women (and in some cases, men) in our modern world, and for that, I appreciated Before and Again. The book reaches beyond love and marriage and sexy scenes to draw in audiences with thought-provoking what ifs about loss and estrangement and self identity. These themes are what makes Delinsky’s newest release a gem.

Although the novel starts a bit slowly, things pick up about seventy pages in and move right along. At the onset, I did feel that the book could have benefited from some editing — there is a lot of detail, much of which I felt could have been trimmed significantly (and that’s saying something, coming from this Steinbeck-worshipper). I was quick to forgive Delinsky this indulgence, though, as the plot fleshed out and characters came to life.

My biggest complaint with the book: the convenient and contrived outcomes of many scenarios. (In truth, this may be why I am less apt to reach for women’s fiction, generally speaking. I think that many of the books that fall into this category tend to wrap up with warm fuzzies, and I’m just not generally one for convenient and/or happy endings.) More than once, I caught myself thinking that things did not fall into place that conveniently in real life, and that was a bit off-putting for me. Once I settled in and stopped trying to make the book a critical based-on-real-life publication, though, the storyline was enjoyable and I couldn’t put the book down.

Overall: 3.5-4 stars. I don’t live within a few hundred miles of a beach, but if I did, you’d better believe I’d have finished this on the sand with a fruity drink within reach.