Unsavory Characters in an Agreeable Novel: "Summer House with Swimming Pool", by Herman Koch - Book Review

Author Herman Koch’s Summer House with Swimming Pool opens with Marc Schlosser, the main character and narrator, explaining to the reader what a caring doctor he is to his patients - how his patients come from miles away because of his genuine, heart-felt bedside manner. He is woefully unconvincing in his delivery.

Despite what his patients may think, right off the bat, Marc is unlikeable. He is insensitive and judgmental. Koch lays down Marc’s thoughts in long, self-important paragraphs that drag on for pages. Surprisingly, though, the antagonist in the book, chauvinistic stage and screen actor, Ralph Meier, is even less likeable.

Ralph comes to Marc as a patient after discovering Marc is ethically flexible as a doctor. Ralph wants a questionable prescription; Marc is happy to oblige. Six months later, Ralph returns to Marc for a true medical issue, which Marc intentionally misdiagnoses.

But the misdiagnosis comes only after an intense summer vacation spent between the Schlossers and Meiers. Both Ralph and Marc have designs on one another’s wives and while Marc knows somewhere deep down that he should stay away from Ralph and his family, he lets his lust and ego rule his decisions. Hence, the joint summer vacation.

The breaking point of the story involves Marc’s eldest daughter, Julia, a teenage girl on the verge of womanhood. Something bad happens to her on that vacation and while the circumstances around the event remain a mystery until the end, the focus on the immorality of the two main characters crystallizes.

Only after Julia’s incident does Marc begin to gain some empathy from the reader. Despite his previous lecherous behavior, he steps up to the plate as a caring dad for his child in need. At the same time, Ralph becomes more reprehensible even if he might not be the perpetrator of this particular wrongdoing.

In the end, Koch takes a hard look at what may be the right thing to do vs. what is ethical. He also tackles the notion that retribution, if used to stop an ongoing evil, might be acceptable; even forgivable. Or, at the very least, justifiable.

Despite the run-on paragraphs and the self-indulgent anecdotal stories from Marc that dotted the story with seeming irrelevance, I found myself being pulled into the dysfunction of these two families and compelled to find out how things would be resolved. Whether satisfied with the ending or not, the book leaves us wondering how ethical any of us really are, if push comes to shove. 

Published: 2015
Publisher: Hogarth

Elizabeth's rating: 3 stars