Something missing here

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“That was something Tobias always said. Fifty-fifty. In the beginning, I loved it. It proved he was complicated, that he refused a bottom line. I thought it meant he saw truth in things that were frivolous, and frivolity in things that were fundamental. It was a way of looking at the world that allowed the air in. but after a few years it just began to confuse me. It was like shifting sands – I couldn’t tell anymore what was real to him. When I’d ask if he was mad at me, and he said ‘fifty-fifty,’ what did it mean?”

The Dinner List is a novel by American TV writer and author, Rebecca Serle. Back when Sabrina was still at college, her best friend Jessica got her to write her dinner list: the five people, living or dead, whom she would invite to the ultimate dinner. There were minor changes over the years, but here she is now, on her thirtieth birthday, sitting at a table with them: Jessica, Tobias, Robert, Professor Conrad, and Audrey Hepburn.

Audrey, of course, everyone knows, and who wouldn’t want her there?; Sabrina’s father Robert, now deceased, left her life when she was very young; Conrad, her college philosophy professor, she hasn’t seen since she graduated; Jessica, now married and a recent mother, she sees very occasionally; and Tobias, the love of her life, well Tobias left a year ago. They’re in a great little restaurant, having wonderful food and wine (except Robert, who is an alcoholic), and they’re getting down to the brass tacks of life.

The concept is an intriguing one, and obviously a bit of magical reality is needed to achieve it. With each chapter, the narrative alternates between the dinner party and Sabrina’s life from the moment she first encounters Tobias. The gathering allows Sabrina to ask the questions that have plagued her for years, in some cases, or for months, at least. Audrey and the Professor act in sort of mature advisory roles, moderators, almost.

Serle gives her characters plenty of wise words but, despite the small cast, the support characters, apart from Jessica, are barely beyond stereotypical. Jessica does blast her best friend with this: “’You’re incredible,’ she says. ‘You’re never responsible, right? It’s never your fault. People are human, Sabrina! They screw up and they’re not perfect and they’re selfish and sometimes they’re doing the best they can.’”

Sabrina is a sort of likeable character, although she does act thirty going on nineteen much of the time, especially regards her emotional maturity. Her belief that her relationship with Tobias is written in the stars and will thrive without effort, just emphasises her naivete (“We were meant to be epic. We were meant to hover above the normalcy…the same rules didn’t apply to us.”). Tobias is similarly idealistic about work and career and life in general. Their wonderful, meant-to-be romance isn’t entirely convincing.

“All we needed was to stay this close. Right up against each other, without any space between us. If we did that we were good. It was just the world – with all its loud chaos, its demands and people and air – that made us fight, that made us separate, that was driving us apart.”

There are certainly moments of joy, moments of raw emotion, moments of laughter, but there’s something missing here. It does end on a hopeful note, and perhaps a bit more length would have allowed the reader to experience a Sabrina with more maturity. Serle seems to have potential, but it’s not fully realised here.