At the beginning of Lara Williams’s Supper Club, we find the narrator Roberta stuck in a typical millennial holding pattern. As she enters her late twenties, Roberta is working an uninspiring assistant job. She spends her free time cooking a lot, socializing very little, and dating never. Flashbacks to Roberta’s college days present her as similarly meek—she rarely ventures off-campus, feels bored by her major, and wonders how to interact with her roommates. Then as now, she makes little effort to shift her circumstances.
Until, that is, Roberta gets an intern. Stevie is beautiful and loud, sexy and garish, funny and opinionated—everything that Roberta isn’t. They talk of periods and shitty male writers, and their friendship quickly blossoms. “I liked Stevie so much I felt embarrassed,” Roberta confesses. The two move in together, sleep in the same bed, and cook for each other. Out of this intense, almost-romantic friendship comes the supper club: a late night, all-female dinner brawl that’s more macabre society of cravings than chaste meal-sharing.
The club encourages members to “take up more space.” This advice has often produced questionable results: Women end up taking space from other women. But the supper club participants have realized that there are other options. Rather than fight for the small scraps that women hold, why not aim for the larger share that men have kept for themselves? When Roberta and Stevie interview prospective members, they ask: “What are you afraid of?” But the real question that Supper Club puts forth to its reader is: What are men afraid of? In Williams’s eyes, they fear women who follow their own desires and who move into the spaces to which men have long felt entitled.
The first meeting of the club consists of a dumpster-foraged, multi-course meal of grilled potatoes and spiced salmon, roasted radishes topped with feta, cold noodle salad with shitake mushrooms, finished with rare T-bone steaks. When some of the women say they’re too full to eat the main course, Stevie explodes:
“Fuck this! . . . This is bullshit. This isn’t some bloody canapé party. We’re meant to be reclaiming our appetites here.”
She threw her fork to the floor, wrapping her hands around the lump of meat and eating it like a bear in a river tearing at the belly of a still-wriggling fish. There was a pause as we watched her, giving us permission, assuming her status as leader of the pack. When I picked up my own steak, self-conscious yet exhilarated, I felt acutely attuned to the animal nature of what I was devouring, the fact of flesh in my hand, perhaps for the first time in my life.
With each meeting of the supper club, the women push themselves to behave in ways that are traditionally read as “male”—messy eating, weight gain, law breaking—and that supposedly repulse men when seen in women. “There’s nothing more terrifying than a woman who eats and fucks with abandon,” Roberta notes.
Williams offers detailed portrayals of these men and the women who must accommodate them. Early in the book, Roberta stands in line at a coffee shop. A woman accidentally bumps into her, and the two apologize profusely to each other. Ahead of them, a man asks the cashier incessant questions, oblivious to the growing line behind him. He asks about tea flavors, changes inane details of his latte order, complains about the prices. He asks about the ingredients of the displayed sandwiches. “Do you think you could have a little look inside?” he asks. “Just to check.” The cashier pulls on “a pair of white latex gloves and began peeling back the tops.” Unlike the women in the book, the men of Supper Club rarely consider the space they take up.
Although Williams’s caricatures of men can sometimes seem heavy-handed, they don’t devolve into caricatures, because they are generally accurate. Williams has a talent for writing another type of bad man, the kind that enters into relationships out of a desire for dominance. In the parallel storyline of Roberta’s college years, she has an affair with a professor named Arnold. (I refer to him in all of my notes as “Arnold, my enemy.”) Arnold has found Roberta at her most vulnerable, shortly after being assaulted by a drunk acquaintance on campus, and he ruthlessly exploits this weakness.
Throughout their relationship, Arnold keeps Roberta at arm’s length. In one scene, Roberta dares to shows up at Arnold’s apartment unannounced, while he’s entertaining his brother Christopher, his sister in law, and her friend. They’re wearing elegant clothes and emanating an adult sophistication that Roberta is not yet capable of. Although he tries to usher her away, his guests invite Roberta in. Not wanting to admit to their relationship, Arnold claims she is a “troubled student” he’s been helping with “pastoral support.” Roberta spends the evening sitting by silently while the group “discussed the organizational politics and minutiae of their respective jobs” and “considered the best places to visit in Portugal.” When she gets up to retrieve more olives from the kitchen, Christopher grabs her ass in front of everyone. The scene is an exercise in literary discomfort, crawling off the page and into your brain.
Understandably, Roberta gives up on dating after college. But despite her experience with Arnold (or perhaps because of it), she still longs be part of the world of heterosexual coupledom. After the creation of the supper club, Roberta gets her chance at romance when she runs into one of her college roommates, Adnan. They soon begin dating and eventually move in together. But even when Roberta finds the “normal” relationship she’s always wanted, it doesn’t bring her the contentment she expected. Roberta tries to keep her newfound supper-club self-respect from affecting her relationship, but it doesn’t work—she finds herself angry while having sex with Adnan and grows frustrated when he’s nice to her mother.
Adnan himself struggles with her involvement with the group, and saves himself from being a “good boyfriend” caricature by quickly becoming a bad one. He’s squeamish about the supper club’s banal trespassing and wonders why “taking up more space” has to translate to Roberta “being fat.” Despite the freedom she finds in these gatherings, she puts the supper club on hiatus to maintain peace in her relationship. Though Adnan is age-appropriate and seemingly open-minded, he’s still a man who abuses a power dynamic, albeit a less overt one than Arnold. Adnan exploits the inherent inequality of heterosexual romance, expecting Roberta to do what he feels is best, simply because she’s his girlfriend. Adnan seems to exist to prove to Roberta that the heteronormativity she idolized has the capacity to be worse than a life lived alone.
In the end, Roberta breaks up with Adnan—after she and Stevie have decided to host one last supper club. Throughout the book, Roberta struggles to negotiate the space between what society tells us to want and what she truly needs. The supper club is what eventually helps Roberta bridge this gap and realize what she’s searching for. Supper Club is not afraid to show the punishments, risks, and ultimate rewards of being a woman who spends her life alone.