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Strangers at the Feast

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A riveting second novel that unfolds over the course of Thanksgiving Day as two families are connected by a horrific crime.

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Strangers at the Feast: A Novel

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A riveting second novel that unfolds over the course of Thanksgiving Day as two families are connected by a horrific crime.

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Editorial Reviews

The Oprah Magazine
"Family conflict, fascinating social commentary, and a riveting plot converge in Jennifer Vanderbes' stunning Strangers at the Feast, a thriller that also raises large and haunting questions about the meaning of guilt, innocence, and justice."
author of The Passage - Justin Cronin
“Gorgeously written and uncompromising in its vision, Strangers at the Feast is more than a great novel. It's an important one.”
author of The Interestings - Meg Wolitzer
“Jennifer Vanderbes does that rare thing in a novel: she stands back and lets her characters talk. Strangers at the Feast is filled with smart conversation, as well as humor, depth, sorrow and surprise. This is a big and satisfying book.”
Washington Post
“Compelling. It's punctuated with sharp observations about class and race, about the winners and losers in America's power grabs, and about the ways a family can play out a culture's conflicts.”
Boston Globe
“Vanderbes has gracefully accomplished the difficult narrative feat of creating a family, which, while emblematic of shifts in the American way of life, is composed of completely realized individuals.”
Book Page
“A tour de force that traces the long history of two families’ decisions to their inevitable, chilling intersection...A must-read.”
Valerie Sayers
Although Vanderbes announces impending disaster early on, the denouement is still tense and surprising, and the novel is ultimately compelling. It's punctuated with sharp observations about class and race, about the winners and losers in America's power grabs, and about the ways a family can play out a culture's conflicts.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
"An absorbing and suspenseful story about the dynamics of family, generational misunderstandings, and the desperate ways one copes with both the arbitrariness of fate and the consequences of one's choices." —-Library Journal Starred Review
Library Journal
No one would expect the Olsons to be involved in a bloody crime dubbed the Thanksgiving Day Massacre. But as the events of that day slowly unfold, we learn how the choices of each family member contribute to the tragedies that follow. There is Gavin, the Olson patriarch whose long-ago decision to fight in Vietnam results in present-day strained relationships and a dead-end insurance job; Eleanor, his wife, whose persistent show of false cheer causes her to snap; their two grown children, Douglas, an overconfident real estate investor whose risky decisions destroy all he holds dear, and Ginny, an academic who impulsively and illegally adopts a mute Indian girl. We also encounter Kijo, a young man from the projects whose intention to send a strong message to the man responsible for razing his home goes horribly wrong. VERDICT Vanderbes (Easter Island) has written an absorbing and suspenseful story about the dynamics of family, generational misunderstandings, and the desperate ways one copes with both the arbitrariness of fate and the consequences of one's choices. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/10.]—Joy Humphrey, Pepperdine Univ. Law Lib., Malibu, CA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439166987
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 8/16/2011
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 636,932
  • Product dimensions: 7.76 (w) x 5.40 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

Jennifer Vanderbes is the author of the novels The Secret of Raven Point, Easter Island, and Strangers at the Feast, and is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a New York Public Library Cullman Fellowship. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Granta and has been translated into sixteen languages. She lives in New York City. Visit her website at
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 28 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 28 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 9, 2010

    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 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.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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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 23, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Literature shows us something about ourselves as this book does

    This book had many echoes for me, preceded as it is by a massive literature of family interactions. Perhaps it is this week's cover of Time magazine carrying the picture of Jonathan Franzen, but The Corrections comes to mind, as does Ian McEwan's Saturday. "Strangers" is an in-depth look at an ordinary family, together on a holiday. The action takes place in one day, Thanksgiving, which has got to be one of the more stressful vacations ever invented for modern man. The holiday comes in the middle of the week, so we often carry stresses from work to the home of our family host. It is also the most travelled holiday for more people travel long distances for that one day than any other holiday on record. There are few among us who cannot claim to be members of dysfunctional families, and our willingness to subject ourselves to a reversion to old family interactions under the guise of "celebrating", "feasting", and "getting together" constantly amazes me. Sometimes it feels as though we feast on each other. This book shows how good intentions can go awry when families get together. The sense of forboding is strong throughout, and the tension builds as each family member's history is reviewed. The sadness and sense of loss we feel at the end, however, is totally unexpected, and filled with grace.

    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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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2012


    This book started out great and held my attention. At times, I couldn't put it down. The character development was outstanding. The end of the book was incredibly disappointing. There was so much potential, but it just didn't go anywhere. When I was through, I felt like I read the book for no real reason.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2011

    Excellent Title for the Book

    The book was interesting to me since it related to Connecticut and its' issue of eminent domain.
    Vanderbes correlated how a character's greed disrupted the lives of his own family and those of the ones that he had immediate effect upon. False happiness existed among the family members. I particularly liked that the author included Ginny's article about the Emasculation of the American Warrior. I did not have to wonder what was in the article and how it would effect her father.

    1 out of 2 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 October 24, 2010

    A must Read!

    Strangers at the Feast
    September 26, 2010
    Jennifer Vanderbes
    Intriguing and Scary
    Strangers At The Feast is a must read! Jennifer Vanderbes has written a story that is both intriguing and scary. In this day of home invasions and the previous overbuilding and politics we can relate to all of the different characters. Some parts were a little long and drawn out but Ms. Vanderbes made up for that with the plot. I was a little disappointed at the end, I wanted to know more about what happened to the characters. I felt like Ginny would not give up on the adoption of her child and Douglas wouldn't just give up. I look forward to reading more of her work in the future!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 6, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Ultimately unsatisfying

    Strangers at the Feast, Jennifer Vanderbes
    The first thing I thought of as I read this book was that Vanderbes writes people very well. Her characters are complicated, flawed, and still sympathetic. None of them are stereotypically good or bad. Rather, they are real. This book has a large cast of characters, and each of them remains memorable even though I've finished the book.

    The premise of the book is the gathering of a family for Thanksgiving. The two parents, Gavin and Eleanor, their adult children, Douglas and Ginny, as well as Douglas' wife Denise and their children all congregate at Ginny's house for the big dinner. A surprise guest is Ginny's new adopted child Priya, a mute seven-year old girl from India. The novel splits into different narratives as the author describes, third-person, each of the characters.

    Eleanor, an aging sort of Mrs. Cunningham (from Happy Days), is controlling yet naive, with no grasp of how to interact with her family except to tell them what to do. Her focus is on material objects: the perfectly set table, the correct baking temperature for turkey. She appears unable to have a real conversation with anyone. In fact, she inwardly wonders if her adopted granddaughter came with any "guarantees". Her life has only one focus: motherhood. She constantly questions why her children don't appear to need her anymore, while she remains devoted and willing to do anything for them. She's even known to send herself cheery postcards, and while at first she annoys, you realize the pain that makes her act this way.

    Ginny is her daughter, an academic who lives to show off her knowledge and gloating at any perceived ignorance. Her knowledge is a cover for her feelings of worthlessness. She's adopted Priya suddenly in a grasp at finding meaning: instant motherhood is the answer she comes up for in her search for happiness. Sadly, she can't seem to relate to the child in any degree, and treats her more as a small housepet. Her head knowledge leaves her little common sense, and her proposed feast becomes a disaster.

    Douglas is a verifiable doofus, a real estate developer sinking into debt, who annoys everyone with his fascinating for discussing hypothetical situations: 'what if you won the lottery!' In this way he can avoid the reality of his financial ruin. His wife can't stand any of them, and only tolerates them because she dislikes her own family more. Lastly, Gavin, the patriarch, is a Vietnam vet who feels worthless in his life as an insurance salesman, and feels threatened by anyone elses's success.

    With a good premise and great characters, this novel has all the makings of a classic. Only the plot is a little bit disappointing. The character studies go on a bit too long, enough to make you wonder what the point is. An undercurrent of an impending crime is hinted at, but occurs late in the novel. The denouement is a bit unsatisfying as we never see how the characters evolve in any way, except for Eleanor. However, her transformation is the key to the novel and saves it in the end.

    While I enjoyed the author's voice, and the way it was snappy and fast-paced, she seemed to get off topic in a few places, namely a long discussion on Vietnam, another on menopause, and a thread on urban blight in the city. These detours were distracting and stalled the narrative quite a bit. The sudden denouement also felt forced.

    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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  • Posted August 9, 2010

    Not much to be thankful for!

    Thank you Simon and Schuster for sending me a copy of Jennifer Vanderbes's "Strangers at the Feast!" I could not put it down ... a great family saga! If you have parents, siblings or children ... struggled with or against "liberal guilt" ... if your politics have changed since your first job out of college... if discussions of cities v. suburbs have rocked your marriage, this is the next book for you. This novel is a moving look at life and relationships among the haves and have-nots & about the very slim line dividing the two ... my book review club will have many hours of discussable issues!

    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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    Posted August 15, 2010

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