Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

Summer HouseBody and soul…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Marc Schlosser is a General Practitioner in Holland. As time has passed, his practice has gradually become a place frequented by artists and actors, often suffering from either hypochondria or illnesses brought on by their lifestyles. Marc has a reputation for being willing to help out with the occasional prescription for drugs that might not be strictly medically necessary. His patients think he’s wonderful and caring (or so he tells us) mainly because he allows twenty minutes for an appointment and appears to want to listen to what they want to say. But the reader has the dubious privilege of seeing inside Marc’s head, and we soon learn that he’s rather different to the image he projects.

Occasionally I’ll ask someone to undress behind the screen, but most of the time I don’t. Human bodies are horrible enough as it is, even with their clothes on. I don’t want to see them, those parts where the sun never shines. Not the folds of fat in which it is always too warm and the bacteria have free rein, not the fungal growths and infections between the toes…

As the book begins we learn that Marc is being investigated for malpractice by the Board of Medical Examiners over the death of one of his patients, successful actor Ralph Maier. As he waits to learn the outcome, Marc tells the story of how Ralph became his patient and of how their families gradually became acquainted, culminating with Marc taking his wife and two young daughters to stay with Ralph’s family in his summer house, complete with swimming pool. Sexual attraction turns the house-party into a bubbling cauldron of hidden and not-so-hidden emotions, gradually coming to a boil as we move towards the shocking incident that’s at the heart of the story.

This is a wonderful book. The writing is brilliant and the translation by Sam Garrett is so good that I had to check that it actually was a translation – it reads as smoothly as if it were originally written in English. Most of the characters are fairly repellent, with both Marc and Ralph coming close to being grotesques, and yet Koch keeps the reader totally involved, desperate to know what happened and why. The book deals with some pretty dark subject matter relating to how society views women and in particular young girls and Koch doesn’t shy away from making the reader uncomfortable to the point of squirming. But it’s richly laced with some really wicked humour that made me laugh out loud at many points, while wishing somehow that I wasn’t finding it funny!

What a lovely pair of girls! The next instant they’re thinking about their own children…They become angry with the father who has had better luck. Biology is a force to be reckoned with. An ugly child is a child you love with all your heart and soul too. But it’s different. You’re pleased with your third-floor walk-up, too, until someone invites you over to dinner at a house with a pool in the garden.

Herman Koch
Herman Koch

Marc’s views range from the conventional to the outrageous and part of the discomfort for the reader is that awful feeling of recognition – of suddenly hearing Marc say that thing we wish we had never thought and would never dare to say in our politically correct world. We’d like to disassociate ourselves entirely from him, but Koch won’t let us. For Marc is no simple monster – he has a wife and daughters who love him and he functions well in society – he’s just close enough to normal to make him truly disturbing as he reminds us that we never really know what is going on behind the surface in anyone. And yet, as the story unfolds, it’s almost impossible not to find oneself empathising with him, which is the most disturbing thing of all.

Dark, funny and thought-provoking, in the end this is as much about the diseases of the soul as of the body, the two somehow tangled together in Marc’s mind. The pacing is perfect, the writing and translation are superb, and Marc is an unforgettable character. One of the best books of the year, in my opinion – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Crown Publishing.

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63 thoughts on “Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

  1. Stellar review! And I can really tell you’ve enjoyed it, for sure. The cover is really neatio. I think someone maybe wrote it out by hand. Or wrote it with blood. I’m not sure which it is.

    Does the pool play a big part?


  2. FictionFan – Oh, it’s so good to hear this was a good read. The Dinner was, I thought, quite well written although it’s hard to say one could like the characters. It was really interesting and I’m glad I read it. Good to hear this one’s up to that.


    • I still haven’t got around to reading ‘The Dinner’ but from other reviews I think the characters in this one are slightly less unattractive, though not by much! But the humour and the sheer quality of the writing made up for that. ‘The Dinner’ will be getting bumped back up my TBR now.


    • A really clever and thought-provoking read with lots of humour – if you get around to reading it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

      Thanks for popping by and commenting, Gemma 😀


      • Well, it was a twisted romance. I did say that Anna wasn’t completely bad but she was bad. And I would even go as far to say she was the main antagonist of the tale, her with Vronsky as a sidekick (oh how I hated him!). Contrasted with them throughout the book are the main protagonists, Levin in Kitty who undergo many of the same trials and overcome them all and hold their marriage together.


        • Yebbut all the best romances are twisted – and preferably tragic. But so judgemental, dear Bubbles! She was weak, but her husband was cold (and she was young, while he was old) – he made little effort to win her, feeling no doubt that he had already bought her. Who wants to spend a life being patronised and being expected to be grateful for it? Vronsky I blame more – but, you know – men, eh? I must admit the whole Levin/Kitty strand has faded to near invisibility in my memory, showing that it’s the tragic endings that stay with us! Where would great literature be if everyone behaved properly all the time? 😉


    • Yes, I can see why. But it wasn’t too graphic despite the subject matter, and was both clever and funny – I’m not keen on books that go too far so if it got past my defences it can’t be too bad…maybe…

      Definitely a great cover though!


        • I’m not sure what either – so we agree! How could you stop reading when you only have five pages left to go?? So…what did you think of it? Glad or sorry when you heard that train approaching?


          • The eighth part isn’t exactly spellbinding. But I have conquered.

            Such a tough question. I am a happy-ending-dude so I half wanted a reconciliation with Alexei, 1st edition. I couldn’t see all bad in Anna…. strike that, I had a hard time seeing any good in Anna towards the end except for the memory of her at the very beginning which seemed to vanish without trace. Perhaps a weakness in the writing? So a reconciliation would have felt cloy and inappropriate. With that in mind, I believe I was happy when the train approached. It felt right and satisfying. Not that I was satisfied at her —— but that I felt like that was what needed to happen and made sense to happen. And taken with the buildup prior through excellent writing it was very vivid and perhaps one of the most final and fulfilling —–s in all of literature.


            • Interesting! It’s many years since I read it so I can’t really remember, but was her transformation not intended to show that a woman within that society couldn’t get away with any kind of unconventionality without it completely destroying her? I agree the ending was both inevitable and satisfying on a literary level – I distinctly remember sobbing my heart out the first time I read it, always the sign of a good book! 😉 However I recently listened to a radio dramatisation of it that was so awful I was actually cheering when I heard the train approach…

              Glad you liked it – it’s the only one of the Russians I can say I wholeheartedly enjoyed.


          • While that is a theme in the book, I would say no. IMO, that is not the reason for her transformation. Her husband looked the other way as long as he could and even received her back at one point with no reservations and it wasn’t ’till very much later that Tolstoy showed how society responded (at the theatre when someone shouted at her). So, rather than saying she was bad to the core, I’d say she allowed herself a little room and a little more room and a little more until she was in a free fall and self destructed…. that is…. are we even on the same page? You couldn’t possibly have liked Vronsky?


            • Oh I wouldn’t have said she was bad, exactly – just weak and a bit selfish. But I had much more sympathy with her when I first read it than I think I would if I re-read it now. Partly because there was a wonderful TV adapatation back in the day, starring one of my favourite actresses at the time, Nicola Pagett, and she gained my sympathy for Anna. And due to that I did rather like Vronsky too – but again suspect I wouldn’t now so much. *sighs* When did romance die?


  3. I recently read my first book by Koch – The Dinner. Sounds like this one has a similar style – hugely unlikeable but compelling characters and some sort of twist/shocking development. I enjoyed The Dinner a lot but it left me with such a creepy feeling that I’m not sure I want to read more from him! Your review has me intrigued though.


    • I’ve been meaning to read The Dinner for ages, but still not got round to it. From what other people have said, the style is similar and if you like one you’ll probably like the other – and vice versa. I’ll definitely be bumping The Dinner up the TBR list now.


  4. I avoided ‘The Dinner’ after a number of poor reviews and so I hadn’t given this much notice either. I’m not entirely sure it’s for me, but if a copy comes my way I’ll remember your review and perhaps look on it more kindly.


    • I’ve been swaying back and forwards on The Dinner for months on the basis of the mixed reviews. But from what people say this one is similar in style and if you like one, you’ll probably like the other, so I’m keen to read it now. But this one is certainly one of those books I can see it would be as easy to hate as to love, so though I think it’s brill, I’m hesitant about blithely recommending it…


  5. Oh dear, you have pulled the microscopic suction cups of my reading gecko off the wall.

    Sorry, I didn’t sleep much last night. That sentence didn’t turn out well, and I’m too tired to fix it. Suffice to say, I don’t think I’ll be strong enough to pass on this one.


    • Haha! I love that sentence – lovely image! Perhaps I should get a team of geckos to do some reading for me…

      I suspect this book will be a love or hate one – so I hope you love it. 🙂


      • Both are great reads in the way that the characters are dissected but I think The Dinner was more shocking… I agree with your comments that one of the reasons why Summer House With Swimming Pool was good is that the characters say and do things that at times we’d like to, but hold back due to social niceties.


  6. Interesting review, especially because I didn’t enjoy this one after sort-of liking The Dinner. The comedy didn’t really work for me in this book, and the story felt more bloated here than in The Dinner. Can you tell I’m a picky reader??


    • Haha! I’m picky myself, so I do understand. I sometimes wish I was one of these people who seem to love everything they read but I fear not. Still, that makes the ones I love feel a bit more special…

      I haven’t read The Dinner yet so can’t compare them, but I’m looking forward to it even more having read this one. Of course, maybe I’ll hate it… 😉


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