As we make our way towards Thanksgiving, America's most treacherous annual dinner party, hospitals across the country shore up their staff lists, turkeys quiver in their pens, and those of us with the more, um, eccentric families start searching for the answer to that eternal question, “Why Me?”
That,’s right — you, my friend, are not alone. As the wizened veteran chef of a dinner party that gave not one, not two, but 10 of my dearest relatives severe cases of food poisoning, not to mention that notorious Thanksgiving where the dining room caught on fire, or the unforgettable “eggnog incident” of ’03, I know better than anyone how a family holiday can leave you grasping at straws, desperate for answers, and craving the comfort that can only be found with the knowledge that someone, anyone, is having a worse time of it than you are.
And, although I could certainly regale you with enough Thanksgiving tales of terror and trauma to keep you cringing from now until Christmas, why not try for something a little more universal when attempting to assuage your agony this holiday season? From Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret to The Joy of Sex, we’ve all turned to a book in times of need, and found comfort, solace, and sage advice within the pages of that perfect tome... so why not now?
These 10 tales of dinner party disasters are so titillating, so shocking, so genuinely terrible that I personally guarantee they will leave you feeling better about your Thanksgiving — even if they can’t un-slap your sister or take back that second bottle of wine you started in on.
Symposium by Muriel Sparks
With a mad uncle, a murder, a convent of Marxist nuns, and a roving band of burglars preying on unknowing guests, Muriel Sparks’ sardonic master-work Symposium has all the elements required of a truly terrible dinner party, including my all-time favourite piece of advice ever visited upon an unlovable protagonist — the suggestion that she “perpetrate evil.” So, whether or not you’re already planning the offing of one of your truly awful aunts, Symposium offers you the chance to untangle the twisted web of lies, lovers and sordid pasts shared by group of urbane Londoners just trying to enjoy a civilized dinner party. Of course, as the fictional wine flows and the witty banter begins to wear thin, Symposium picks up speed and truly starts to sizzle, exposing the morbid motivations and seething resentments lying just below the surface of even the most stylish guest. So, if your Thanksgiving trembles with the tinkling of glasses and peals of false laughter, this just might be the tale for you.
The Dinner by Herman Koch
Allow me to set the scene — an Art Deco dining room at one of The Netherlands’ finest dining establishments, a well-laid table, and two seething couples staring daggers back and forth at one another. The basic details of Koch’s elegant and understated novel are as simple and straightforward as any night out with a brother and sister-in law could be; that is, until the artifice begins to wear thin and each of the characters starts to show those true colors that make this story so twisted and yet so true to life. If your family dinner turns on a constant delivery of highly stylized dishes while deep, dark, long-buried secrets threaten to burst onto the scene, The Dinner is the perfect novel to take your mind off your troubles.
The Uninvited Guest by Sadie Jones
If you prefer your fictional soirees fraught with a few dark and stormy twists, settle in for a sweet treat courtesy of the bestselling author Sadie Jones. As the courtly kitchens of the English manor known as Sterne prepare for the elegant birthday party of Emerald Torrington, a crowd of mysterious and unsavory strangers converge upon the country manor and the entire household is throne into chaos. As the night turns tempestuous and a truly salacious parlor game threatens to destroy any remaining respectability the Torrington family may have hoped to salvage, Sadie Jones makes it abundantly clear that in this beautifully structured novel all that glitters is most certainly not gold.
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
For anyone who’s ever arrived at a family Thanksgiving only to find herself seated next to a few poorly chosen friends of the family who just happen to be single, Tennessee William’s dark southern gothic will ring oh-so true. As Amanda, the overbearing mother high on her own past success as a feted Souther Belle, puts pressure on her son Tom to find a beau for his delicate and tremulous teenage sister Laura, this twisted family courts trouble in ways no one could foresee. When the unpretentious acquaintance Tom brings home just happens to play the part of potential suitor perfectly in every way but one, a candlelit dinner turns sweet and then sour before sending an entire family up in flames. So, if you’re particularly concerned about a little unwanted romantic attention this November, turn to dear old Tennessee Williams for a few drops of comfort before you make your way to the table.
Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
Without getting into the nitty gritty details of Acts 1 through 4, let me just say that if you can make it to the highly anticipated banquet depicted in Act 5 Scene 3, boy are you in for a treat, even if cannibalism isn’t generally your thing. Ultimately, the dinner party centers around the trials and tribulations of a father and daughter, and culminates with the consumption of a pie filled with people. So, if you’re looking for a little something to take the edge of your aunt’s store-bought dessert selection this holiday season, consider Shakespeare.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf by Edward Albee
There’s nothing that spices up a dinner party like a marriage in distress. For anyone who’s ever forced themselves to sit across from a couple who clearly cannot stand each other any longer, Edward Albee’s tart, sardonic magnum opus provides a welcome bit of “it could have been worse.” As Martha and George play host to the unwitting and utterly pitiable Nick and Honey over the course of a three-act dinner party, passive aggressive humor and embarrassing stories are just a few of courses served up hot and steaming with sarcasm. What this all boils down to: If you’re looking for a little respite from those snarky stories your sister tells while your mom sits stoney-eyed with arms crossed at the head of the table, Edward Albee’s family drama might just fit the bill.
Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
Two warring queens and a young girl stuck in the middle — is any of that sounding familiar? If you’re nodding your head just imagining the scene, then throw yourself down the rabbit hole at once for a few more of Alice’s food-based follies. In this particular Carroll classic, Alice suffers the unenviable fate of prisoner at a party table as the red and white queens sit on either side, twisting her words, demanding her loyalties, and testing her knowledge and skill. If your Thanksgiving is shaping up to look more like the War of the Roses than cozy family fun, sympathize with Alice as you consider your own fate and the entire affair will seem just a little less crazy as you emerge from a world where down is up and up is somewhere to the left or right.
Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis
Less Than Zero follows the unhealthy exploits of a young, rich college student returning home to Los Angeles for a series of drug-fueled binges among the glitterati. After tracking down an ex-girlfriend and consuming one, two, or perhaps 10-too-many cocktails, Clay becomes disillusioned with the party scene and is forced to confront the untold horrors of L.A.’s seedy underbelly. If you’ve got the stomach for a truly dark story, and you’re looking for a little comfort, this book will surely leave you feeling grateful for the family you have, and perhaps eager to avoid L.A. at all costs as a side effect.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
Sometimes no matter how hard you try you just cannot catch a break. So, when you’ve spilled wine on your new white dress and botched the gravy so badly that your brother has stopped speaking to you, catch your breath with a quick story about someone who’s day is undeniably worse than yours. As Alexander wakes up to find gum in his hair before tripping on a skateboard and dropping his sweater in the sink, you may find yourself wondering what this has to do with dinner; and then, you’ll make your way to the breakfast table with Alexander and read on with bated breath as the two brothers pull prizes from their cereal boxes and Alexander winds up with nothing. When all the white meat has been taken before you get there and you’re left without a bread roll, turn to Alexander for a few drops of solace before fighting for that last slice of that pecan pie.
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Nobody does repressed anger and subtle malice quite like Evelyn Waugh. In this decadent society novel satirizing London in the early 20th century, Waugh depicts flapper parties and boozy binges that lead to the sort of hopelessness that only comes after too many drinks and a night spent among strangers who are supposed to be close friends. If your Thanksgiving nightmare is fueled by one-too-many beers and the distinct feeling that you simply don’t know these people at all, take a walk with Waugh and you’ll find yourself feeling just a little bit friendlier towards your own family.
When all is said and done, whether you’re desperate to avoid the clutches of sordid secrets or simply looking to escape an unfortunate set-up, there’s nothing a good dinner party disaster story can’t fix (except perhaps food poisoning). So take a word from the wise — stock your bookshelf well before this Thanksgiving, and don’t forget the meat thermometer.
Image: Alessandro Vali/Flickr; Giphy