There’s something deliciously intimate about a dinner party, don’t you think? The thrill of being included in a carefully considered gathering, the chance to relax and socialize in a welcoming and private environment. At its best, the humble dinner party offers good food and laughter, an escape from daily worries and a chance to plan new adventures. At its worst—well, the potential for drama and catastrophe is enough to make the heart of any dinner party host plummet, and the eyes of any novelist light up.
Let’s begin our fictional dinner party tour by dropping in on the simplest, most casual of suppers. The guests here have known each other for years, and we all like to let our hair down when we’re in the company of old friends, don’t we? We shuck off our inhibitions with our coats in the hall; the wine flows early and our words are gleeful and unguarded. But with so much shared history, there can be undercurrents of tension: perhaps a toast to a job success stirs up envy, or the use of a hated nickname sparks resentment. Before we know it, secrets and home truths are spilling out across the crumb-strewn tablecloth, and relationships are thrown into chaos.
We’ll make a hasty exit and hurry on to a dinner specifically arranged to bring new acquaintances together. How kind the host is here, enquiring about the details of our day, introducing us to the other guests around the table. I say kind, but my author brain is weighing up alternative interpretations: condescending; social climbing; manipulative. But you don’t hear my whispered doubts; you’re distracted by the pop of a champagne cork, mesmerized by the charming stranger seated next to you…
Enough of that! We’ll make our excuses and dash on to a grander, more formal dinner party, where glamour and sophistication abound, and we sense the need to stay alert. The possibilities for tension stack up like so many layers of filo pastry: a misjudged dress code here; a stilted conversation there; a clumsy attempt at matchmaking; a barbed compliment that takes your breath away. And lurking beneath all this is the potential for something far more serious: real danger. Yes, study the smiling, privileged guests around you: can you guess which one knows where the bodies are buried? Can you imagine the lengths they might go to, to protect their position in this elite social group?
It’s well past midnight, and as we head home, we realize that only one thing is certain: if you encounter a dinner party in a novel, it will never be uneventful. Here are ten books where the author has used a dinner party to great effect:
The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena
This book sits at the top of my list because it starts deep in a dinner party that is already turning sour. Anne and Marco have spent the evening dining with their neighbors, but Anne is desperate to peel her husband away from their hostess and return to their own home next door, where their six-month-old baby sleeps in her crib with the baby monitor on. But when Anne and Marco finally stagger the few short paces home, they find their front door ajar, and the baby’s crib empty…
Lie With Me by Sabine Durrant
At the beginning of this book, Paul bumps into an old university friend and is invited to dinner. He almost declines, but he’s down on his luck and about to be made homeless, so the lure of a good meal and a ‘decent glass of French’ is too much too resist. When he arrives, he realises the other guests know each other well, and he remembers some of them from a holiday he took in Greece ten years earlier, when a young girl went missing…
The Dinner Party by R.J. Parker
Ted and Juliette invite three other couples to a dinner party on a Friday evening, and one of the guests suggests they play a trust game. Each person has to write down their deepest, darkest secret—something that has happened since they took their wedding vows—and pass the note to their partner. The partner is supposed to announce forgiveness and set the note on fire without reading it. Suddenly, the evening feels on shaky ground.
Expectation by Anna Hope
This story follows three friends, Hannah, Cate and Lissa, as they navigate adulthood and relationships through a decade and more. At one point, Cate and her husband host a dinner party, even though Cate finds the prospect of it excruciating. A key couple arrive late and unhappy, and the evening descends into drunken dancing, arguments and wild accusations, until eventually someone storms out into the night.
The Other Passenger by Louise Candlish
This story focuses on the relationship between two couples who are significantly different in age and affluence. The four characters first come together socially at a dinner party hosted by the older couple in their elegant, four storey Georgian townhouse. The younger couple later take their turn to host a dinner, but events have already been set in motion that will change all of their lives forever.
Behind Closed Doors by BA Paris
Jack and Grace give every appearance of being the perfect couple, and they throw the most wonderful dinner parties for their friends and neighbours. But looks can be deceiving, and behind the scenes, their life is not as happy as it seems.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Frances and Bobbi are spoken word artists who are befriended by Melissa, a well-known journalist, who wants to write a profile on them. When they arrive at Melissa’s house for dinner, they find Melissa’s husband, a well-known actor named Nick, chopping the vegetables. Frances and Bobbi are soon drawn into Melissa and Nick’s world of beautiful houses and raucous dinner parties.
Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins
The main character here is a nanny, Dee, and it’s Dee’s employer, the Master of an Oxford college, who throws the dinner parties. The Master and his wife are criticized for being showy, particularly when they invite a famous actor to one of their dinners, but they need the celebrity factor to raise money for their college. Meanwhile, Dee and the child she looks after are excluded from these events, leaving them free to follow their own agenda, unnoticed by the child’s distracted father and stepmother.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The dinner here involves a gathering of family, plus a couple of friends. An asphyxiating silence at the beginning of the meal is eventually broken by a guest, Paul, who rudely turns away from the hostess to start a private conversation. Several of the diners are wrestling with their own private issues, and the scene is set for events to get much, much worse before the evening is over.
The Perfect Guests by Emma Rous
In my own book, seven guests come together for a dinner party at a grand, isolated house in the English Fens, as part of a promotional event for a new Murder Mystery company. As an actor, Sadie is being paid good money to play the role of one of the diners, and she’s thrilled to have landed a gig in such a luxurious and glamorous setting. But as the evening progresses, she begins to suspect that all is not as it seems, and that their unseen host has plans for all of them.