A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY by Lauren Grodstein
“This is something about himself that Alec still doesn’t know: how much he was wanted, how difficult it was to have him. And during some moments of adolescent rebellion, and again during the wars over his dropping out of Hampshire, when he would scream that he wished he’d never been born, Elaine would grab his flailing arms, hold him still, and say, You can never say that. That’s the one thing you are never allowed to say.
He was born at Round Hill Medical Center on July 4, 1985, nine fifteen at night. As we held Alec for the first time, the town fireworks began to whiz and boom, celebrating 209 years of democracy in America and also, Elaine and I were certain, our son’s long-awaited arrival.”
Review by Sudheer Apte (FEB 5, 2010)
Just like her earlier debut novel Reproduction is the Flaw of Love, Lauren Grodstein’s new book, too, is written from the point of view of a morose male protagonist. The hero in A Friend of the Family is Peter Dizinoff, a doctor living in a very comfortable New Jersey suburb.
In the beginning of the novel we find Dizinoff unhappy and separated from his family, but we are not told why. Flipping between flashbacks, we learn that his son Alec, on whom all of his fatherly expectations are laden, has disappointed his father by dropping out of a promising school. Not only is Dizinoff worried about his son’s life and career, but he is also worried that his wife Elaine seems much more blasÃ©Â about how their son will manage, content to just love him and trust that he will find his own way.
Why can’t Alec be more like their best friends’ children, two of whom went to MIT? There are plenty of bad examples on hand to beware of: the same best friends’ eldest daughter got pregnant a few years ago as a teenager, was suspected of having murdered her baby after birth, and left home for years to escape the scandal. In fact this girl, Laura, now thirty years old, is back home now, and the much younger Alec is taking an alarming interest in her.
The central dilemma of the novel is a father’s love for his son and how far he is willing to go to protect him from approaching horrors. This kind of story is tricky to write: make Peter Dizinoff too sympathetic a character, and you veer into tragic melodrama as bad things happen to an innocent person; yet if you make him too flawed, the reader is apt to stop caring what happens to him.
Grodstein does a good job balancing these tensions, although your reaction to the novel will depend on how much Dizinoff’s character repels you. The man has no empathy for others. He is quick to judge people and to interfere in his son’s life, all the while offering elaborate justifications to himself for his own actions. Always a bit off, he gradually becomes more and more socially conservative, starting to take an interest in his Jewish heritage. He desperately wants his son to talk to him but is unable to relate to him. What prevents Dizinoff from becoming a Bollywood movie dad is Grodstein’s use of the first person, so that we see his life through his eyes. He is also a somewhat unreliable narrator; gradually his perspective becomes more and more skewed, while the past and present become more and more intertwined.
What I liked about the novel was its fast pace, especially toward the end when the mystery is revealed. Grodstein’s minute observations of everyday life, and her insight into a middle-aged father’s mind, also make this novel enjoyable. With well-researched medical terminology and some excellent lines, this should make for a good feature film—I can already see Robin Williams in a white coat.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 287 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Algonquin Books; 1 edition (November 10, 2009)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Lauren Grodstein|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||More on Fatherhood:|
- The Best of Animals: Stories (2002)
- Reproduction is the Flaw of Love (2004)
- A Friend of the Family (2009)
- The Explanation for Everything (September 2013)