The Dinner Party: A Novel

The Dinner Party: A Novel

by Brenda Janowitz


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This Passover Seder is not just any Passover Seder. Yes, there will be a quick service and then a festive meal afterwards, but this night is different from all other nights. This will be the night the Golds of Greenwich meet the Rothschilds of New York City.

The Rothschilds are the stuff of legends. They control banks, own vineyards in Napa, diamond mines in Africa, and even an organic farm somewhere in the Midwest that produces the most popular Romaine lettuce consumed in this country. And now, Sylvia Gold's daughter is dating one of them.

When Sylvia finds out that her youngest of three is going to bring her new boyfriend to the Seder, she's giddy. When she finds out that his parents are coming, too, she darn near faints. Making a good impression is all she thinks about. Well, almost. She still has to consider her other daughter, Sarah, who'll be coming with her less than appropriate beau and his overly dramatic Italian mother. But the drama won't stop there. Because despite the food and the wine, despite the new linen and the fresh flowers, the holidays are about family.

In Brenda Janowitz's The Dinner Party, long forgotten memories come to the surface. Old grievances play out. And Sylvia Gold has to learn how to let her family go.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250007872
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/12/2016
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 190,115
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

BRENDA JANOWITZ is the author of five novels, including The Dinner Party and Recipe for a Happy Life. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Salon.

Read an Excerpt

The Dinner Party

A Novel

By Brenda Janowitz

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Brenda Janowitz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-09556-5


This Passover Seder is not just any Passover Seder. Yes, there will be a quick service followed by a festive meal, but this night is different from all other nights. This will be the night that the Golds of Greenwich meet the Rothschilds of New York City.

You may know the Rothschilds as the most famous Jewish family that ever lived. You may know them as the people who control banking. (When people say the Jews control banking, they are almost always talking about the Rothschilds.) And the Rothschilds have, for the last two hundred years, controlled banking in this country. They also own vineyards in Napa, diamond mines in Africa, and an organic farm somewhere in the Midwest that produces the most popular romaine lettuce consumed in this country.

The Rothschilds are the stuff of legends. Hollywood has made movies about them; historians have attempted to write books about them. And now, Sylvia's daughter is dating one of them.

Sylvia began planning for this Seder a month ago, when she discovered that her youngest of three had a new beau and planned to bring him. Sylvia was pleased that even during the insanity of medical school, Becca had made time for a social life. (Her middle child, Sarah, had no social life and an inappropriate beau.) Sylvia's pulse quickened when she discovered that her daughter's new boyfriend was a Rothschild. When Becca asked if his parents could attend the Seder, too, Sylvia all but fainted.

The first thing Sylvia did was have the gutters emptied. It was something she'd been planning to do (something she planned to do after every winter), but this time she actually did it. She couldn't risk any stray leaves falling on a Rothschild.

Next, she had the painter come in to freshen things up. Sylvia pointed out tiny cracks in the molding, little dings in the walls. She had the kitchen and powder room repainted. A fresh coat of paint on the front door.

Sylvia arranged to have a cleaning crew come to dry-clean the draperies. She had the rugs professionally cleaned, the wood floors refinished, the marble polished and resealed. A florist was commissioned to create a piece for the entryway table. ("The importance of a first impression cannot be overstated," the florist advised. Sylvia couldn't help but agree.)

Her husband had come home in the middle of all this. "How much is this Seder costing me, exactly?" he asked.

Alan didn't understand.

Sylvia wanted to present her home, her family, in a certain way. She looked at the house differently now that the Rothschilds were coming. She was very good at taking care of her home, but now she could only see what was wrong with it. Where before she saw in Becca's baby blanket, tenderly strewn across her childhood bed, a beautiful reminder of a time long past, now it was a remnant, threadbare and worn. The piano where Gideon learned to play, which she had always regarded as evidence of his happy childhood, was a rickety artifact in need of tuning. Sarah's old artwork, lovingly tacked to the back of her bedroom door, was childish and out of place.

Sylvia examined the guest bathroom with a diligent eye. Those towels on the wall — how long had she had them? She couldn't recall. They would need to be replaced. She made a trip into Manhattan to pick up new bath towels: white linen with a subtle silver pattern and a monogram. She also bought guest napkins and cocktail napkins for the bar in the same pattern.

She went back a week later when she decided that her tablecloth, the one she inherited from her Aunt Miriam, simply wouldn't do.

Four nights before her guests were to arrive, Sylvia set the table. She polished her old set of silver, the set she hadn't used since her mother was alive. It positively gleamed against the newly purchased napkins. Her old set of china — the set that was a wedding gift from Alan's parents — still looked modern and fresh. She would wait until the day of the Seder to buy fresh flowers for the table. She would arrange them in tiny vessels — five luscious red roses in each small vase — and place them all along the inside of the table. Everyone would have a view of the flowers, but they wouldn't be so high that you couldn't see the person sitting across from you. Sylvia imagined her finished table and silently complimented herself on her good taste. She'd always had an eye for the finer things.

Alan came downstairs to see when Sylvia was planning to turn in for the night.

"The table looks beautiful," he said. "What about the Seder plate?"

She had completely forgotten.


"Do you have a shank bone?"

"No," Sarah replied. That's not exactly the sort of thing you keep around the kitchen. "Aren't you getting one from Marty?" Her mother had gone to the same butcher for as long as Sarah could remember. Had she had a falling-out with him? (Sylvia was prone to falling out with people who didn't meet her exacting standards.)

"I'm not," her mother said. "Can you get a shank bone, please?"

"I'm just going to walk in carrying a shank bone?"

The answer was yes, she should just walk in carrying a shank bone. Sarah hung up before realizing she hadn't asked about Marty. She had vivid memories of visiting his shop when she was a child. Her mother would pick her up from school, and on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, they'd drive to Goldsmith and Sons Kosher Butcher. Marty had a kind face, an unfortunate hairline, and a protruding gut — he looked like the image you would conjure when thinking of the word butcher. Marty always had a snack ready for Sarah. A meatball, a piece of turkey, the odd lollipop. He would smile broadly at her when she walked in. His shop always smelled like slow-roasted brisket.

Sarah puzzled over where, exactly, to purchase a shank bone, and when, exactly, to find the time to pick it up. It was Tuesday, and the Passover Seder was on Friday. She had a busy week of work ahead of her — the magazine went to print on Friday — and she would be going to the Seder straight from work once the issue went to bed.

"Can you pick up a shank bone this week?"

"And hello to you, too," Joe said.

"Sorry, honey," she said. "My mother is driving me crazy. She wants me to bring a shank bone. It's part of the Seder plate."

"I know that," he said. Of course he did. He'd been attending Gold family Seders since he was thirteen. Also, he'd been studying. "It represents the lamb that was the Paschal sacrifice on the eve of the exodus from Egypt."

"It does?" Sarah asked.

"Yes," Joe said. Sarah considered his response.

"Sorry," she said. "I know you know. She's driving me crazy."

"I noticed."

Joe knew that the Jewish holidays had a way of accentuating the fact that Sarah had chosen a Christmas-celebrating, Easter-observing Italian boy to spend her life with, and not the Hebrew-reading, Bar Mitzvah'd mensch that her mother had always hoped for. "Go back to work and I'll take care of everything."

"What are you wearing?"

"Dirty talk at the office?" Joe asked, his cheeks turning a slight shade of pink. "Okay, I'm down with that. I've got on my old Levi's —"

"I mean to the Seder," Sarah said.

"It's only Tuesday," he said.


"How am I supposed to know what I'm wearing on Friday? It's only Tuesday."

"I'm wearing my gray shift — you know the one we did in the February issue? — with black tights and my black Loubie booties. Silver bangles, no necklace. Hair down."

She was doing it again. Talking in code. Speaking in that fashion editor's language that Joe could barely understand. But it didn't matter. Whatever Sarah draped herself in, Joe always thought she looked like she stepped off the pages of the magazine she edited.

"That sounds perfect," Joe said. This was usually the correct response.

"So, what are you going to wear? Those khakis I bought you?"

"I'm not really a khakis kind of guy."

"They would look really nice with the navy sports jacket I got you, and the tie I got you for the wedding."

"I'm not really a sports jacket kind of guy. I will shave, though."

"I'll pick something out for you," Sarah said, just before hanging up the phone.


Sylvia loved wielding a knife. Loved the feel of it in her hands, the way it sliced through even the toughest foe with precision and speed.

A distant cousin had bought Sylvia her first set of knives as a wedding present. At the time, Sylvia thought it was a ridiculous gift. An offensive gift. After all, she was a nurse. She had a career. She felt that this present — most of the presents, actually — were objects meant to distract her from her goals and lure her into a more domesticated life. She certainly wasn't going to stop working just because she was getting married. Surely everyone understood that?

But soon after having the kids, Sylvia discovered the meditative power of cooking. Of slicing, in particular. And she cooked. Often. At first with recipes from her mother and her grandmother, and then by experimenting on her own. Sylvia discovered she was good in the kitchen. Very good. And Sylvia liked things at which she could excel.

Since then, Sylvia had graduated to more and more expensive sets of knives. She also owned her own sharpener, so she could treat her knives whenever they dulled. Sylvia did not like a dull knife.

Sylvia's kitchen was her sanctuary, her favorite room in the house. She had a large country kitchen before it was fashionable to do so. An oversized farmhouse sink, a large glass-front refrigerator, and an industrial double oven with eight burners and a griddle. The millwork was impeccable, the cabinets were double-glazed, and the countertops were granite. The edge of the kitchen island had a built-in butcher's block large enough to accommodate a Thanksgiving turkey.

Sylvia had insisted on a kitchen table that would seat ten. Alan objected — when hosting that many people, shouldn't we use the dining room? — but Sylvia got what she wanted, always got what she wanted, and liked to gloat whenever the table came in handy. Gideon's entire soccer team ate a victory pizza dinner at that table after winning regionals his junior year of high school. Becca's science club had created a large-scale replica of Mount Vesuvius when she was in the seventh grade. And Sarah's first-grade class took turns jumping onto the table and tracing their little selves for their unit on "The Human Body."

Sylvia stood at the kitchen island and cut up lemons for the chicken piccata. Alan loved to eat Italian right before Passover. The chicken encrusted in flour, the bed of pasta, the garlic toast on the side — exactly what he needed to get through eight days without bread. She looked out the bay window as she worked. How many times had she looked out that window while she was cooking to find her children running around the backyard? It was different now, with her son and daughters all grown up. No one really came home to visit anymore, except on holidays.

Sylvia looked back down at the cutting board. The lemon was cut into eight perfect circles. But there was something else on the board — a ribbon of deep burgundy all over her slices. Sylvia put down her knife and picked up the lemon slices to try to salvage them. Had they been ruined? Or could she bring them to the sink to rinse them off? As she picked up the fruit, she felt a searing sting on her hand — the pain was unbearable.

Sylvia had cut her finger.



Sarah clicked "send" and her e-mail was whisked off her computer screen. Two nights before the holiday, and already she missed Gideon. She hated this feeling — no matter how angry she got at Gideon, no matter how much she hated him, he was, and always would be, her big brother. There was this longing, this need, to have him in her life. Even though when he was around, they fought more than anything else. Even though when he was around, Sarah became invisible.

Sarah flipped through the pages her assistant had dropped on her desk. Her changes hadn't been made. Did anyone here listen to her? She buzzed her assistant and instructed her to print out her changes (again) and send them to the art department (again).

"With a note explaining that we're resending the original edits?" her assistant asked.

"No note," Sarah said. "Just attach my original memo. The one they didn't follow."

Minutes later, an e-mail popped up on her screen: MISS YOU, TOO, KIDDO.


Gideon quickly responded: ISN'T THAT WHAT JOE IS FOR?


Sarah always forgot how to calculate the ten-and-a-half-hour time difference between the East Coast and Sri Lanka.

A few clicks of the mouse, and her computer rang, inviting Gideon Gold to a video chat. An enormous head popped up on her screen.

"Don't they have razors over there?" she asked, staring at his scruffy face.

"Hello to you, too," Gideon said, smiling broadly. He was always smiling broadly. "I thought you missed me?"

"I'm just now realizing that I only want you for the distraction at the Seder."

"Gee, thanks, kiddo," he said. "Don't you know I'm doing God's work over here?"

They both laughed. That was how Sylvia described Gideon's job: doing God's work. Sarah liked to call Gideon "the Messiah," since that's how their mother treated him.

"What do you think of this new guy Becca's got?" Gideon asked.

"I haven't met him yet," Sarah said.

"And he's coming to the Seder?"

"Well, he is a Rothschild," Sarah said.

"I have no idea what that means," Gideon responded, eyes bright, waiting for his sister's explanation.

Sarah was about to tell him about Becca's suitable boyfriend and his glamorous family when some sort of commotion flared up outside of Gideon's tent.

"Gotta go," he said, looking over his shoulder. "God's work just doesn't ever stop."

"Apparently not."

"I love you," he said, just as he ended the chat.

"I love you, too," she said to the blank screen.


Sylvia left the most difficult thing until the end. She had a habit of doing that — leaving things she didn't want to do until the end. She'd done it before her wedding, deciding minutes before the ceremony who would walk with her in her father's absence. She'd done it before Gideon's Bar Mitzvah, deciding the day before who would light each of the thirteen candles on his cake. And she'd done it the year Sarah and Becca went away to college on the same day, deciding only two days before which parent would drive which girl.

She was doing it again now. The night before her guests were to arrive, Sylvia was finally tackling the seating arrangements. She knew the key to any successful dinner party was the placement of the guests.

She put each of the names on tiny little cards. There was her family: she and Alan, her daughters Sarah and Becca. As she wrote their names in her fanciest script, she couldn't help but feel a tug of emotion. Another year without Gideon. She knew that his work with Doctors Without Borders was important, but she hated the idea of him spending the holiday all alone, in a tent with no electricity.

Next she filled out the cards for Becca's boyfriend's family. There was the Boyfriend, Henry, and his parents, Ursella and Edmond. The Rothschilds. She wrote their names slowly, carefully, adding a flourish to her script on the U in Ursella's name and the E in Edmond's.

Finally, she brought herself to make out cards for Sarah's boyfriend and his mother. She wished that Sarah would break up with Joe. And she wished she hadn't been guilted into inviting his mother. (She'd only done so after the poor woman had a near-breakdown in the market on Front Street.) If anyone could ruin this dinner party, it was the Russos. Sylvia hastily wrote out cards for Joe and his mother. She wrote them so carelessly, in fact, that their names were barely legible. Valentina looked more like Ballerina, which she most certainly was not.

Next came the tiny sterling silver apples that would hold each place card. Sylvia started with the easiest ones. She and Alan would each occupy a seat at the head of the table, hers closer to the kitchen so she could check on the food as the meal progressed. Next, the Rothschilds. The Rothschilds should each have a seat of honor, so that was easy, too. Edmond would be seated to her right, Ursella to Alan's right, and Henry to her left. Once the guests of honor were placed, she stood back from the table to admire her handiwork.

Now came the hard part. Where would she put Joe's mother? Valentina had never been to their home before, but Sylvia knew that she'd be the most likely to cause a scene. She always spoke a decibel higher than most other people, like Stanley Kowalski yelling for Stella. And who knew what sorts of things she considered proper dinner conversation? She would put Valentina on Alan's left. Surely he'd be able to manage her throughout the course of dinner. Alan had a way of speaking very softly. As a child, he was cautioned to be seen and not heard. And now, as the head of pediatric cardiology for Connecticut Children's Hospital, he was accustomed to people listening carefully to him. There was never an occasion to raise his voice; he always had the floor.

That left the girls and Joe. She put Becca next to her beau, and Sarah next to her. The only spot left for Joe was across the table from the girls, next to his mother. Maybe they would just talk amongst themselves.


Excerpted from The Dinner Party by Brenda Janowitz. Copyright © 2016 Brenda Janowitz. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Book One: The Seder Plate Is Assembled,
The First Question,
Book Two: The Last Supper,
The Second Question,
The Third Question,
Book Three: The Clean-Up,
The Fourth Question,
"One Little Goat",
Discussion Questions,
Also by Brenda Janowitz,
About the Author,

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The Dinner Party: A Novel 2.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
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