Review by E. Kirshe
Were you ever asked that old ice-breaker question: if you could have dinner with any five people, living or dead, who would it be? When Sabrina Nielson arrives to her 30th birthday dinner she finds her five picks sitting around the table. Though it’s more or less what I expected, Rebecca Serle’s take on this premise is very well executed and sensitively written.
The Dinner List is bittersweet with moments of levity and heartbreak throughout. It’s a one-night-only therapy session for Sabrina as she navigates her most important past relationships: Robert, the (now deceased) father who abandoned her; Jessica, her somewhat estranged best friend (and her traditional birthday dinner companion); and Tobias, the on-and-off-again boyfriend of basically a decade, for closure and healing. All of this is mediated by her old college professor Conrad, and also, Audrey Hepburn.
The Dinner List mainly digs into Sabrina’s relationship with Tobias, who she still regards as the great love of her life. Occasionally Serle serves up some funny moments, general relationship advice, and all with a bit of magical realism. The Dinner List pulls you through relationships, very human fatal flaws, and explains why those five people made Sabrina’s list- essentially answering who shapes a person’s life.
My main complaint is about pacing. At under 300 pages it’s not a major critique, but I was involved in the plot enough that I would’ve liked to spend more time digging into Sabrina’s other relationships. The whole first half of the book largely focuses on Sabrina’s glowing memories of her time with Tobias. If this was a movie everything up to page 150 would be memories steeped in hazy golden hour lighting. There’s also a sort of obvious ‘twist’ to the premise that I think would have made the first half of the story stronger if it had been revealed upfront.
It’s not until over halfway through the book that we get a more definitive statement about her relationship with Tobias: “Sometimes I even felt like a parent. I cleaned the dishes when they piled up, and I noticed when the milk was bad or empty. I called the super when the radiator stopped working and bought the lightbulbs when the kitchen went dark.” I could have used less of the hazy “everything is good” set up, and more insights like this (though people who really love romance will likely disagree).
The point that Sabrina thinks everything (especially when it comes to love) should be a magical fairytale does help pin her down as a character- ignoring the little things and pushing away the real world is a big problem for her. She thinks of herself as a character in an epic romance and others as side characters (like boyfriend Paul who she dates while in the ‘off’ phase with Tobias) but this doesn’t need the amount of time Serle uses to drill it in.
Also there are five other people at the table and through the first half only small interludes are given to their relationships with Sabrina. While it may be too painful to talk to the dead father she never knew- and has lingering resentment toward- it may have been nice to see more of that since she knows she only has this one night (of course the magic ends at midnight).
There’s a lot of charm as well as some humor here. Other than the literal magic of The Dinner List everything else feels very real. Though it’s told through fantasy it’s largely about one person facing reality, moving forward, and being able to build a real in the world.
The Dinner List was released by Flatiron Books on Sept. 11, 2018
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.