"Dinner Party" by Sarah Gilmartin; Pushkin Press (272 pages, $16.95)
Sarah Gilmartin's debut novel is bookended by dinner parties -- the first, on Halloween night 2018, is formal, with elaborate food (beef Wellington, baked Alaska), and the second, on Halloween night one year later, is simpler, with chili and takeaway pizza.
Both parties are family affairs, and about as dysfunctional as you please. And yes, the food is important. Food is a character in this book -- food prepared, food forbidden, food shared, food not eaten. Mostly, food not eaten.
"Dinner Party" is an uncomfortable pleasure to read. Everyone is a mess; family relations are strained in all directions. The main character, Kate, is grieving the loss of her twin, Elaine, who died as a teenager on Halloween and who haunts the novel and Kate's life. Her grief manifests itself as an eating disorder and alcohol abuse.
Brothers Ray and Peter have problems of their own -- a collapsing marriage, a thwarted dream.
At the heart of all this is Mammy -- their monstrous, manipulative mother who lights up the page whenever she takes center stage. Her cruelty is compelling; we can't look away; we are appalled; we want more.
The book moves between the present, Kate's childhood, her drunken blur of college years and, finally, Elaine's tragic accident. It's a story about grief and healing and those who trap us in their pain. "Loss had split Kate open," Gilmartin writes. "And yet her mother, through all her lamenting, seemed fundamentally the same."
There are small missteps -- a long scene featuring a pot-laced brownie, Kate's perhaps overly quick improvement. But these are quibbles. Gilmartin's dialogue sparkles, and her understanding of family dynamics is sharp. "Dinner Party" is a smooth read, a true feast of dysfunction.