I Won’t Tell You That I Love You

You know those annoying movies and TV shows: the ones where no words have to be spoken or facial gestures have to be made, not even one little eyebrow kink or twitch of the lips. It’s just one glance between two people, and it says it all.

Well, it’s supposed to tell all, but as a viewer and a realist, you’re calling the bluff. To us, it’s a straight-up poker face.

I kept coming back to this ineffective visual while reading Rebecca Serle’s The Dinner List. Too much of this book contains those unspoken moments that must mean something to the characters but leave us outsiders blinded. A lot is left unsaid and poorly hinted at in the book until it quickly comes to an end. It’s as if we’re expected to read the characters’ minds and predict what’s coming without any type of foreshadowing. There’s something to be said about a book in which you can literally read through the lines. You can’t do that with The Dinner List, and even though it’s been praised by celebs and friends alike, it frustrated me more than thrilled.

The Dinner List

Rebecca Serle brings us an interesting concept in her debut adult novel. (She’s previously written four YA novels.) When a young woman in New York City arrives at a restaurant to celebrate her 30th birthday, she’s joined not just by her best friend, Jessica, for their annual tradition. Accompanying her are Sabrina’s ex-boyfriend, Tobias, her estranged father, her favorite college professor, and Audrey Hepburn.

Seated together, these five individuals might seem like an odd combo — not to mention an unrealistic one — but they all have one thing in common: They are all on Sabrina’s “dinner list,” the five people, alive or dead, with whom Sabrina wishes she could dine. Throughout this long meal, we learn of the roller coaster ride on which Sabrina and Tobias have found themselves for 12 years, the distance that’s come to define her friendship with Jessica, and the painful separation between Sabrina and her father, a former addict who died before he had a chance to ask for forgiveness. It really is a story of what you’d say if you had one more chance.

“That’s the thing about life — these moments that define us emerge out of nothing.” — The Dinner List

I like the concept because it’s new, and it could have worked if the characters weren’t so unlikable. Not every story needs amiable individuals (case in point), but this entire cast was annoying and immature and people I’d never want to share a meal with. The amount of times I found myself thinking “get your s*%# together” far exceeded those of sympathy. A lot of eye rolls came from my end.

This could have balanced out if the writing made up for these despicable characters. That wasn’t the case though; Serle was simply TTH — trying too hard. (See my review of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing for the history and a thorough explanation of one of my favorite acronyms.)

The heart of this story is pure chick lit. I know the genre gets a bad name, but I will refute that critique until the day I die. Serle has created a love story we know all too well, mixed with growing up, family drama, and friends moving on. These plot lines could revel in chick lit if only Serle weren’t TTH. Rather than embrace the type of world and stories she’s created, she aims for darkness, mystery, and something too poetic. It simply doesn’t work.

Chick lit doesn’t equal subordinate storytelling and writing. It just means writing for an audience that can relate and in a way that makes sense. Had Serle stuck to these characteristics, her book could have sparkled more.

“It’s strange the tricks adrenaline plays on you. The need to fix, to rectify. In the moment of impact we think it’s possible to go back. We’re so close to the previous minute; how hard would it be to just turn back the clock?” — The Dinner List

This novel also feels like one big cliché with many smaller clichés sprinkled in. Sabrina has had a “whirlwind” relationship with a man who is 30 going on 13. She’s had daddy issues. Everything is “bittersweet,” and she’s romanticized about a tiny apartment in NYC she could barely afford.

*Note to those who have never lived in NYC: Nobody, and I mean nobody, yearns for that first shoebox in their early 20s. We want that square footage.*

The biggest cliché of them all is everything Serle leaves unsaid and all the emotions and thoughts the characters seemingly pass to one another — which, by extension, should mean the readers as well. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves in literature, when authors think readers know exactly what a character is feeling or thinking. I’m not saying every emotion needs to be spelled out, but if you’re not showing it in some way, you’re definitely not telling it. And that need for clarity will sit with me until well after I’ve turned the last page.

I respect the premise of this book and the creativity behind the nugget. And to be fair, I originally assigned this book three flames, but the more I thought and wrote about it, the more I realized it carried few qualities I actually enjoyed. I found the cons far surpassed the pros with this one.

“Consistent contentment rarely makes for good storytelling.” — The Dinner List

My dinner list (excluding family and friends because that’s just too hard) would comprise:

  • Lady Gaga
  • Michelle Obama
  • Sophia Bush
  • George Washington
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Who would you pick? Let me know in the comments!

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