“Strangers at the Feast,” by Jennifer Vanderbes, is a powerful novel about a family struggling to find happiness amid hidden costs of the American dream.
It is Thanksgiving Day, 2007, at the height of the economic downturn. A typical American family, the Olsons have gathered at the home of daughter Ginny. The opposite of her mother, a traditional, stay-at-home mom, Ginny is single, independent and headstrong. She has just adopted a seven-year-old girl from India. No one else has met Priya and Ginny is eager to show her off. She is reluctant to admit it, but maybe something has been lacking in her life. Now she hopes to celebrate that she has a daughter as well as her new home in suburbia.
Douglas, Ginny’s brother, is a land developer who has been highly successful until recently. He made reckless real estate investments during the real estate boom, however, and is now heavily over-extended and doing a balancing act to keep up appearances. His wife, Denise, knows everything is about to crash and there is bitter tension between them. The couple has three children who seem to be fine.
This particular Thanksgiving Day has the same potential as most family gatherings: misunderstandings, hurt feelings and sibling resentments. The author introduces the reader to a complicated cast of characters and what they will do to protect their families. But things are about to erupt that will change all their lives.
The line between suburban and urban areas is a theme at work throughout the novel. Two angry, resentful students from Denise’s school nearby are caught invading Douglas’s luxurious home and collide with the Olson gathering.
For the students, life has been unfair. Kijo lives with his grandmother Rose and takes care of her in his own way, yet he is utterly helpless when the government rules their home a “blight” order it condemned. Kijo and his grandmother are forced out, left with nowhere to go but the slums.
The novel makes sharp social commentary and builds slowly and with suspense. The characters are developed as their stories unfold during the single Thanksgiving evening, while their conflicts build to a dramatic conclusion.