As the story opens, Dutch couple Paul and Claire Lohman are preparing to have dinner at a fancy, high-end Amsterdam restaurant with Paul's brother Serge and his wife Babette. Paul, the book's narrator, isn't looking forward to the evening. He doesn't feel like dining at a snobby overpriced eatery and he disdains Serge - a popular politician who's slated to become the next Prime Minister of Holland.
According to Paul, Serge is too full of himself, flaunts his money and influence, is overly braggy about his vacations in France, has unpleasant eating habits, and so on. Moreover, Paul criticizes Serge and Babette for adopting an African boy from Burkina Faso when they already had a son and daughter. In Paul's opinion this was done solely for political reasons.
It's hard to take Paul's opinions at face value, though, because they sound a lot like resentment, jealousy, and sour grapes. Paul was once a history teacher but has been 'on leave' for ten years because of inappropriate and offensive teaching practices and because he has health issues.
As the dinner proceeds from appetizer to main dish to dessert, each teeny weeny portion of nouvelle cuisine is described in great detail by the dandyish restaurant manager. These descriptions are infuriating to Paul (but rather entertaining for the reader). Meanwhile, conversation at the dinner table and flashbacks recounted by Paul inform the reader about what's going on.
Serge has arranged this dinner so the two couples can discuss an incident involving their teenage sons. Paul and Claire's son (Michel) and Serge and Babette's son (Rick) committed a serious crime that was captured by a surveillance camera. The video of the offense is on the news and on youtube but it's grainy and the boys are not identifiable - except to their parents.
Though all four parents want to do what's best for their children, they don't agree on what this is. As we come to know the characters better - and learn their secrets - Michel's problems come into focus and Paul's 'acting out' becomes increasingly disturbing. So does the behavior of various other characters.
The book's power relies on its step by step revelations so to say more would be a potential spoiler. Some parts of the story, though, were not believable (see below).
The tale is a skillfully constructed and well-written psychological study, but I didn't like it. Most of the characters are deplorable, especially those who apparently have no conscience. I was also dissatisfied with the ending. One critic mentioned that Americans need likable characters in their books and I guess that's true for me.
This just isn't the book for me.
Paul freely admits to committing serious criminal assault on at least two occasions (with witnesses present) yet he seems to suffer no consequences. This doesn't ring true to me.