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Strangers at the Feast

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Most Helpful Favorable Review

4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

Thriller With Heart

Absolutely loved this suspenseful read by author I had never heard of. Unknown guests attend family Thanksgiving. I could not put this book down, finished it in a day. Has everything in it: suspense, drama, family loyalty, love. A must read for sure.

posted by 2615541 on August 4, 2010

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Most Helpful Critical Review

4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

Not as thrilling as promised, but still worth reading

In Strangers At The Feast, Jennifer Vanderbes produces the tight, engaging narrative every writer dreams of creating. From the opening line, Jennifer Vanderbes draws you in and invites you to sit down with her fictional family while they tell their story. Vanderbes ta...
In Strangers At The Feast, Jennifer Vanderbes produces the tight, engaging narrative every writer dreams of creating. From the opening line, Jennifer Vanderbes draws you in and invites you to sit down with her fictional family while they tell their story. Vanderbes tackles weighty themes ranging from socioeconomics to eminent domain.

I struggled to craft a synopsis that would do justice to Strangers At The Feast. Simply stating the plot doesn't cover the intricacies of Vanderbes' story. Unfortunately, the complexity that made Strangers At The Feast appealing to me as a reader also detracted from my experience.

Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character. Although this formula gives the reader a feeling of immediacy and intimacy with Vanderbes' characters, they lack the distinctive voices that make the technique successful. Jennifer Vanderbes also spends more than half of her novel in flashback, in which she treats the reader to history lessons or waxes philosophical about the "emasculation of the American warrior." While these scenes are well-written, they drag down the book's pacing.

When I finally reached the climax, Vanderbes rushed through it, and left a number of plot points unresolved. I was far more interested in the subplot involving Ginny Olson's adopted Indian daughter than in Douglas Olson's marital difficulties and was disappointed that I didn't get to see more of Priya. Despite lagging a bit in the middle, Strangers At The Feast is a quick read. Fans of literary fiction will enjoy Jennifer Vanderbes' skill with words and appreciate the depth of her research into a wide variety of topics.

posted by SylvereApLeanan on November 9, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2010

    Thriller With Heart

    Absolutely loved this suspenseful read by author I had never heard of. Unknown guests attend family Thanksgiving. I could not put this book down, finished it in a day. Has everything in it: suspense, drama, family loyalty, love. A must read for sure.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 8, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    One of 2010's Best Books!

    The novel begins on Thanksgiving Day 2007 with the extended Olson family gathering together to celebrate the day. Ginny Olson, a thirty something single professor and daughter of Gavin, an aging Vietnam Vet and Eleanor a suburban housewife, is the host of the dinner. Ginny has never cooked a big meal before, but wants to celebrate her new home and newly adopted mute, seven year old Indian daughter. Rounding out the guest list are Ginny's brother Doug along with his wife Denise and their three children. Doug is a real estate mogul who is on the brink of bankruptcy due to the real estate bubble burst. On a parallel storyline track are Kijo and Spider, troubled urban teens with a grudge against one Olson family member. By the novel's end all plotlines have converged in an astonishing and unexpected way.

    Strangers at the Feast is a hard to characterize novel - part thriller/suspense, part domestic drama, part socio-political commentary and part satire. Vanderbes, a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, does it all! For instance, when writing about Ginny's academia article, "The Emasculation of the American Warrior," Vanderbes weaves an actual article (or at least several pages of it) into the story. Still at other points she includes a thoughtful legal analysis of "eminent domain" and a play by play account of the Green Bay Packers 2007 Thanksgiving Day game.

    Strangers at the Feast is an exquisite and riveting story of family dysfunction ripped from recent headlines.



    Advance review copy provided courtesy of the publisher.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 25, 2010

    4.5 out of 5 stars - compelling read

    THIS book left me unsettled and uneasy .. and any book that leaves you thinking about it .. about how it could have ended differently ... about whether it SHOULD have ended differently ... about how sometimes EVERYone loses ... well, it's pretty good in my eyes.

    Meet Eleanor, married to Gavin, a Vietnam vet. Meet their children: Ginny, a professor of family studies, and HER newly-adopted (surprise!) Indian daughter Priya; Douglas and his wife Denise, as well as THEIR children, twin boys Brian and Brandon (I never saw where their ages were specified, but I'd assume that they are 2-3 years older than their 5-year-old sister Laura). Ginny is very academic with ultra-liberal ideas on colonialism and the like. Douglas managed to lose all of the family savings in the stock market, and now he is desperately trying to gain it back through a new development project that is currently sitting almost empty. Denise works as a nutritionist at Jefferson High School, and resents having to go to work to help pay off the mountains of debt the family is in due to her husband's mismanagement of their finances. They live in a huge house (their third) with expensive fixtures and appliances, all the trappings of financial success. Eleanor is the dutiful wife, having stayed with her husband after he came back from Vietnam a changed man when many of her friends were filing for divorce for the same reason. She followed her mother's advice and had a baby to hold the family together. Gavin, on the other hand, came back with dreams of being "something different", and ended up hemmed in with family obligations ... stuck in a windowless office just to pay the bills.

    Meet Kijo: a high-schooler at Jefferson High School, being raised by his Grandma Rose. He doesn't know who his father is, and recently found out that the reason for his mother's absence is that she took up with the neighborhood drug dealer, got hooked on crack, and disappeared after an argument with his Grandma, After losing their home to eminent domain, they are now living in the projects, in an environment that Grandma Rose worked so hard to keep them out of. Kijo's best friend Spider is currently in a group home because HIS uncle Clarence died, and he has no one else to take care of him. Uncle Clarence raised the motherless Spider after his father went to prison, and raised him with love, but Spider has lost the one person who truly loved him in the world.

    As we read this book and learn about each character, we're made aware that something BAD is going to happen ... we don't know who it's going to happen to distinctly, but we know it's coming ... on Thanksgiving ... the first Thanksgiving that Ginny, now a new homeowner and mother, decides to host.

    The buildup to the tragedy and the insight into each of the character's thoughts and what makes them the people they are make for a compelling read. Knowing that SOMEthing is going to happen makes it even more interesting.

    As the story reached the point it had been leading to, I found myself flipping back a page, thinking, "NO! THAT didn't really just happen!" .. but it did. Honestly, you're left wondering if justice was served, or if it wasn't. There isn't a black and white, and in the end, EVERYone in the story loses SOMEthing.

    This is an excellent and compelling read; definitely one that you will remember.

    (I received a complimentary copy of this title from the publisher to facilitate my review)

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 4, 2010

    This book is a really well written fictional tale of family relationships and interactions. It is about cause and effect! It also totally parallels reality!

    I am not sure I would have picked it up to read on my own. I received it from Simon and Schuster as a giveaway and I am really grateful for that opportunity because I really enjoyed the book.
    The author skillfully shines a light on so many issues facing society today. Throughout the book, the author's use of comments by the characters, to foreshadow the last scene, is very effective. In one day, many of their insecurities and fears are revealed, almost casually, and often with humor. Without being overbearing or seeming contrived, the tension builds slowly towards the final scene, and the impact of it, is explosive.
    Through the use of character named chapters, the author fully develops the players and explores their lives, opening their wounds and illustrating that their past and present decisions all have consequences, some minor, some major. The contrast between the behavior of the men and women is stark. Devotion, loneliness, loyalty and regret, injustice, greed and envy are major components of the story. I liked the fact that Priya was mute since so many of the issues in the families were unspoken and hidden.
    My daughter told me she was told that books are windows into the lives of some readers and mirrors for others. For me, this book was a mirror reflecting back my own world, in many respects, with all of the issues I have faced raising my family and it opened a clearer window into my children's. Likewise, if my children read it, they will find it to be a mirror of theirs and a window into mine. I remember reading Water For Elephants shortly after my mother passed away. I wished I had read it sooner so I would have had the insights it provided, before she died. I hope my children read this so that they come to better understand the conflicts their parent faced, the choices and sacrifices they made, as they brought them up and tried to provide a better life for them while trying to instill moral values that would lead them down life's path in a successful, healthy way. Perhaps, after reading it, they will take a little less for granted and become a little less obsessed with the material things in life.
    Many of the thoughts and emotions that the characters experienced seemed almost too familiar. Who has not agonized over personal safety, finances, security, children's futures and the well being of the family? Who does not know someone who has been scarred by the Viet Nam war, who has watched in horror as the events of 9/11 unfolded, or been touched by a bitter divorce, hurt by the financial scandals, or faced crime in their neighborhoods?
    The author did a marvelous job of exposing all of life's frailties and the dangers to which we are exposed. I highly recommend it for reader's of all ages and all backgrounds. It is a Thanksgiving Day no one will soon forget.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 25, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Excellent read.

    I enjoyed the book and after finishing it I was reminded of Mrs. Pontellier swimming out to sea after truly realizing her position and circumstance in life as was imposed by societal standards. The idea of starting different chapters with characters as opposed to numbers or titles, made the book more personal. It worked better in my opinion, because the characters seem more real to the reader, as well as put the reader into a specific character frame when reading each chapter. It was as if you were reading a diary composed of different authors. Secondly, the books' settings and character lives were realistic situations. For example, the professions are believable, as well as the lives they would lead today. They could be people you pass on the street everyday or the neighbor living beside you. Davis is the father who survives Vietnam, only to return home to struggle to survive the rest of his life. Its nice to see his point of view recognized by the detective in the book at the end of the story. Elaine is the mother who devotes her life to taking care of her family only to be looked upon with pity from the children, friends and society. Although she attended and graduated college, she chose to be a mother and this is not an important profession. She is looked upon with contempt almost. You can see this when she places her viewpoint in the article only to have it refused within ten minutes. When you realize she doesn't want Ginny to know, it makes their story even more sad, in that both parents want their children to be proud of them. Davis sitting quietly, after reading Ginnys' article is another example of this. I could go on and on, about what other insights the characters gave, but those were the two I will remember the most. Once again thank you for giving me the opportunity to read this book. .

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 17, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Just like a runaway train, Strangers at the Feast picks up speed and hurls you toward its dramatic conclusion. You won't be able to put this one down.

    It's Thanksgiving day. Ginny, has invited her parents, her brother, his wife and their three kids to enjoy dinner in her new home. Ginny, single and an academic sort at that, is not well-versed in the kitchen, but is excited about hosting such an important meal. The others are excited about the prospect of seeing her new home, but they have their doubts over how successful the dinner will be.

    While waiting for dinner, each character has time to reflect on the past. The story is told through alternating points of view, whereas each chapter is dedicated to a character in the story. As the story progresses, it's clear that the meal is anything but traditional and that there are larger issues to consider.

    The mere mention of Thanksgiving brings many images to mind. The glistening bird, the mounds of mashed potatoes, the gravy boats and.the drama. You know what I am talking about. Where Aunt Jolene drank a little bit too much wine and ended up out by the trash cans, or how that bird may have looked perfectly roasted on the outside, but really wasn't. It happens. As much as I love Thanksgiving, there is also a little piece of me that dreads it as well. Vanderbes has written a novel that somehow encapsulates that exact feeling of dread. Family dynamics, intimate secrets, it's all here.

    As the tension mounts, you know something is going to happen, but what? Well, I won't share anything else because I want you to read it for yourself but Vanderbes does not disappoint. The writing is tight, the pace is gripping, and the characters are worth remembering. I was very excited to receive this book and once I cracked it open, I could not put it down.

    What I especially admire is that this isn't JUST a page-turner, this is a book with a message. If you're a fan of well-constructed stories, ones that unfold like a three-act play, are page-turners and include well-developed, conflicted characters, then there is no doubt in my mind that you will enjoy Strangers at the Feast.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 6, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Great for a book club

    I read this novel in just two days, and I've been thinking about it ever since. It tells the story of a family gathering for Thanksgiving while two teenage boys from the housing projects set out on a mysterious mission; the book is suspenseful, the characters are real and complicated and sympathetic. But most important, it raises many interesting questions about feminism, race, class, greed, and justice. I am proposing this for my book club next month as I think it will generate an excellent discussion.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 21, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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