8 Dinner Parties in Literature Gone Wrong

Lee Kelly, author of "With Regrets," recommends novels where sharing a meal is fraught with tension and danger

Still from the movie, The Dinner, adapted from the novel by Herman Koch
Still from the movie, The Dinner, adapted from the novel by Herman Koch

There’s something inherently charged and dramatic about a dinner party—various individuals, couples, or families coming together to share a meal, perhaps several courses over several hours, with everyone trapped in their seats. No escape, interruption, or distraction. Just the food, and each other’s company. 

In real life, the drama of these dinner parties is often confined to a mouthy uncle, or a political debate that morphs into a shouting match after too much wine’s been served. In fiction, though, the possible dramas and dangers of a dinner party are almost limitless—the tight, intimate space of contrasting characters with conflicting motivations a perfect setting for writers to enact their very worst. A fictional dinner might be capable of upending a character’s life over the course of just a few pages, for instance. Or the dinner food or invitees themselves could be treacherous. Or, as in my novel, a dinner party could be the very inconvenient situation a character finds herself in on the brink of the apocalypse.

My latest genre-blending suspense novel, With Regrets, chronicles an evening when various friends and frenemies gather, sans kids, for a dinner party at their lifestyle-influencer neighbor’s house, and a world-altering, apocalyptic event occurs during the first course. Trapped inside their host’s home, the group is forced to launch into survival mode, grabbing supplies to take shelter in the wine cellar. But everyone has very different opinions about the best plan to get home to their children… and some of the secrets the guests are keeping may prove just as dangerous as the threats outside.

Here are eight of my favorite recent novels featuring a dangerous dinner, with the term “danger” encompassing quite a variety of threats and menacing situations.

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

Jack and Grace are the envy of their dinner guests: he’s handsome, successful, and charming; she’s graceful, doting, and a wonder in the kitchen. Little do these dinner guests know, though, that the elaborate three-course meal Grace has prepared is a malicious test designed by Jack, a secret sociopath—and if the beef wellington is undercooked or the souffles overdone, there will be hell to pay. 

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

New parents Anne and Marco can’t find a sitter for their baby, and so they leave their sleeping little one with a monitor and pop by their next-door neighbors’ house for a quick dinner. Anne can’t shake the nagging sense that something is wrong, though, and when she finally pulls Marco away to check on their child, they discover every parent’s worst nightmare: the baby has been stolen. 

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Protagonist Wallace, a gay, Black, introverted biochemistry graduate student, is pondering leaving his predominately White Midwestern university given the many indignities he’s endured inside his lab and on campus. Wallace’s limits are further tested when he’s invited to a campus dinner party. The danger, here, is overt when one of the other guests makes racist, incendiary remarks to Wallace during the meal. But there are also the more subtle, pervasive dangers of the institutional system in which Wallace is enmeshed, a system that consistently suppresses and permits these types of comments and conversations. 

The Dinner Guests by Kiersten Modglin

This novel reimagines a dinner party as a malicious escape room, and I was here for every moment of this inventive premise. A quaint neighborhood’s enigmatic new residents invite a group of longtime friends over for dinner. As soon as the drinks are served, though, the guests realize they’re in for a lot more than dinner. What follows is a calculated game seemingly designed for psychological torture: friendships are tested, secrets are revealed, and as the game advances, it becomes clear that not all the invitees might make it out alive.

Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen

The dinners featured in this mind-bending, heart-wrenching sci-fi novel dangerously defy the laws of time and space itself. Kin Stewart, a time-traveling agent from 2142, has been secretly marooned in the 1990s. Kin’s given up on being rescued, and has started a new life; he’s now an IT expert with a teenage daughter. When Kin’s rescue team arrives eighteen years too late, Kin becomes torn between two different timelines and realities—hosting dinner parties with his wife in 2142 while simultaneously trying to preserve his relationship with his daughter across the centuries. His attempts threaten to corrupt the entire time-space continuum, and potentially destroy history itself.  

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

What better way to warmly welcome a new neighbor than inviting him over for dinner? thinks Patricia Campbell, the Southern homemaker protagonist of Grady Hendrix’s unique novel. Unfortunately for Patricia, this neighbor turns out to be a vampire. This genre-blending story takes place in a South Carolina town over the course of the late 1980s and 1990s, and features a women’s book club who ultimately face off with evil incarnate to protect their families and community (and yes, it’s every bit as fun as it sounds).

A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons by Kate Khavari

This page-turning historical fantasy series begins with a university dinner where poison is served. By whom? That’s for Saffron Everleigh to figure out. As a new research assistant at University College London, Saffron is determined to make her way in the field of botany, but systemic misogyny and accusations of nepotism have kept her from getting ahead. When a dinner guest ingests an unknown toxin and her mentor becomes the prime suspect, Saffron works to uncover the true perpetrator. 

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Tremblay’s horror novel chronicles the dynamics of a New England family that begins to unravel when eldest daughter, Marjorie, starts exhibiting signs of demonic possession. Though is Marjorie the victim of a diabolic hold . . . or is she suffering from acute schizophrenia? Things still aren’t clear when the family sits down to dinner in one of the most unsettling scenes I’ve ever read, a harrowing sequence where, regardless of the truth, Marjorie proves to be an unequivocal danger to herself and her family.

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