Book review: Dinner with the Schnabels by Toni Jordan

(courtesy Hachette Australia)

Most of us like to think we have life all figured out.

We don’t, of course, none of us really, bar some rather opinionated religious types and vague philosophers with scattered words of pseudo wisdom, but it’s the story we tell ourselves to keep our souls from exploding with a heady load of bristling uncertainty.

The stories we tell ourselves to get by are all through the hilariously wise and thoughtful delight that is Dinner With the Schnabels by Toni Jordan, a novel so funny and yet insightfully clever that you are laughing your proverbial off one minute and nodding in wry recognition the next.

At the centre of all this humourous existential crisis-ing – not a word but it seems apt so we’re going to run with it – is Simon Larsen, a Melbourne, Australia-based man who, two years ago, lost his reasonably successfully architectural business to the privations of the COVID pandemic.

With his livelihood, went a firm sense of self (so, he thought), his house with wife Tansy and kids Mia (the bright one) and Lachie (the fun, not-so-bright one) and any real sense of purpose, his life now a muddied series of depressed interludes and half-hearted childrearing moments.

He loves his kids, and he adores his wife who is the undisputed love of his, and any other, life, but with his entrepreneurial days behind him, and with them all the riotous fun and late, family-neglecting nights with them, he is fun but a shell of a man, his life stripped bare of any worth or meaning.

“A woman has cleared the gates and was walking towards them.

‘Don’t look. It’s her,’ Tansy whispered.

What did this woman have that they – Kylie, Tansy and Nick – didn’t? All these years of waiting, of wondering. Tansy had never mentioned it, but Simon knew she thought of it sometimes. As Kylie must have. And Nick. Finally, they were about to find out.” (P. 18)

Or is it?

That is the million dollar, beautifully landscaped question that sits at the heart of this comedically-rich gem.

For while Simon might his life has gone south faster than birds migrating for the winter, the truth is a good deal more complicated than that, which Jordan reveals in ways that will have you spitting food from your mouth with gloriously chaotic laughter – try this on for size when it comes to kids’ lunchboxes … “Parents pack fruit, apparently, so that the fruit can enjoy a leisurely few hours out of the house.” or dealing with kids asking questions about what they can do … “‘Sure, have fun,’ said Simon, who had no idea what they’d asked and hoped it didn’t involve swallowing tablets they’d found on the street” – and punching your fist in the air at the idea that someone actually gets life and knows how to articulate in way that hits home.

Over a frantic week where Simon has to landscape his wife’s best friend Naveen’s back yard for a memorial service for Tansy’s estranged father David – all orchestrated by the terrifyingly intense Gloria, the take-no-prisoners, tell-it-like-it-is mother of Tansy, and her super close siblings Kylie and Nick – Simon discovers that perhaps his life isn’t quite what he thought it was, and that, perhaps, just perhaps, things are more on the up than he’d given them credit for?

The absolute joy of Dinner With the Schnabels is that it manages to read like a particularly inspired piece of stand-up comedy, the kind that zings with thrillingly funny humour. while thumping you deep in the soul with the kind of insights only therapy can usually provide.

It is really a kind of pell-mell guide to the madcap way in which actual life often bears no resemblance to what we think it’s like, and how our perceptions are wacky and off course; god bless our hilariously half-baked assumptions, in fact about life and its contrary hilarity, all given voice, and considerable emotional and mental gymnastics, by a protagonist who feels continually beleaguered by the twists and turns that beset him seemingly minute by minute – Tansy’s half-sister appears out of nowhere and takes over their lives? Mia may not be the kid he though she was? Tansy may have some bombshell-like secrets ? – and who becomes quite convinced as the week goes on that everything is a mere shadow of its former self.

Watching Simon discover that perhaps it is not so bad after all, imbues Dinner With the Schnabels with a messy, frantic comedically hopeful glow, the kind that assures you, in-between half-done dinners and endlessly-delayed chores and tasks, that maybe you’re getting more things right than you think.

Sure, it doesn’t feel like that – does life ever feel like that? I mean, really? – but then this masterfully alive and vibrantly frothily substantial novel is all about upsetting perceptions while often nodding sagely and going “yep, it is what you think it is … but also not.”

“He [Simon] put the phone back in his pocket with a shaking hand. He felt as though the guts of him had been removed.

Then he packed up the ute as the sun was rising and, despite the whole-body exhaustion of this shell of a physical being, Simon felt like he had just woken up from years of sleep because now he wanted things. was it possible to be nostalgic for something he’d never experienced himself?” (PP. 322-323)

It is near impossible not to fall hard for the Schnabels who may be dysfunctional af but who actually give a damn about each other in a way that more ordered and well-manicured families often do not.

Theirs is a happily all-over-the shop closeness, and while Gloria might be way too close for Simon, or anyone’s comfort, much of the time, she is there and she cares in some quirkily OTT ways and it’s this sense of family, flesh and found, that ultimately gives the book much of its vivaciousness energy and mirth-inducing appeal.

It gets that life isn’t even a little bit like we think it is and that that is not necessarily a bad thing.

It can look bad, very bad- just ask Simon who is a card-carrying member of the ‘we’re all doomed club” and spends much of his time fighting off copious amounts of panic and alarm and hilariously misplaced insights which is both insightful and manifestly not, often at the same time – but that’s not the end of the story, something that Dinner With the Schnabels drives home time again in between bouts of laugh-out-loud wonder (fellow commuters may stare but guffaw anyway) and some messily touching moments of real intimacy and calm.

Dinner With the Schnabels is brilliant, simply, wonderfully brilliant, because it knows we get stuff wrong as much as we get it right and that we get stuck in the grooves of the negative and rarely the positive but which taps us on the shoulder, wearing both the cap of the comedian and the therapist, and assures us that in the harried days, rushed dinners and left-of-centre surprises of which life is inordinately and unwelcomingly fond, that maybe we’re doing okay after all and that things may, just may, end up okay after all.

Just don’t say a word to Gloria, will ya?

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