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A Friend of the Family

by Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin, 2009)

Lauren Grodstein's début novel, A Friend of the Family, would be a compellingly readable account of a man's life even if its armature of suspense were kicked away. It is much easier to point out that the suspense yields a disappointed relief than it is to present Pete Dizinoff on the page without quoting yards of text. For the matter of that, the text is mostly dialogue, dotted with the occasional reflective passage. Reading the book is very much like listening to an articulate friend talk about a life-changing event: it is more intimate than most fiction. Because Pete is so palpable, it's impossible to hold him at a distance: he quickly becomes someone you know, someone who may or not become a problem in your life, because he is a good man who has apparently screwed up. Is he worth your sympathy or not? But you've given it before the question surfaces.

How has Pete Dizinoff screwed up? He is in trouble on three fronts: marital, paternal, and professional. Which is just about it, for the suburban man of substance. But what has he actually done? By the time we find out, at the very end, we don't really care, we're glad that it wasn't very serious — some might say that Pete didn't screw up at all — but we're also slightly annoyed with Pete for raising our concern on his behalf. If we'd known from the beginning, we'd still have been interested in his story. There was no need to excite our low curiosity about other people's problems, our childish hope that they'll be in really big trouble. Had Ms Grodstein fulfilled this part of her contract, we'd call friends the minute we put the book down to tell them what we just found out about Pete, as if he were a mutual acquaintance, or the distant cousin of one.

But Schadenfreude is not the secret sauce of A Friend of the Family. Our concern, however inflected by unnecessary melodrama, is certainly warranted. Pete Dizinoff hasn't screwed up, really; he has simply attained middle age only to find that he no longer has the moves that brought him to suburban prosperity. Life has been signaling to him to slow down, but he still thinks of himself as a thirty year-old mensch, working hard not only at practicing medicine but also at living the good life. He cannot grasp the extent to which he has lost control over his college-aged son. He cannot swallow his dislike of his best friend's daughter, a girl who did a very bad thing half her lifetime ago; nor as he come to terms with his attraction to her mother. Where he expected to find certainties and accomplishments, he uncovers only doubts and tentatives. When his story comes to an end — to put it better, when his story catches up with the moment from which he narrates it — Pete has learned to live with them.

One might argue that the melodramatic aspect of the narrative is Pete's idea, that he'd rather visualize his attachments as at risk than discover them to be murky and misunderstood. Or that he has exaggerated the precariousness of his situation in order to sweeten the inevitable vindication. Certainly he handles his medical-malpractice problem in a way that underscores his dedication as well as his competence. But however clever this reading is at absolving Ms Grodstein of authorial shortcomings, it does nothing to minimize the sense of over-dramatization. It's Pete's present that we care about, not Ms Grodstein's future. I hope that the essential compliment of this judgment is apparent.

The effectiveness of A Friend of the Family springs largely from the beautifully controlled dialogue, which is both supple and informative beyond the plane of the conversation. Here is Pete talking to Iris — still at least partly the girl of his dreams — about Alec, his son.

"Alec doesn't respect us," I said. "That's the thing, he really doesn't respect us at all." And we're his parents. He should respect us."

"And he will, when he's older."

"We love that little shit more than anyone else ever will."

"He loves you, too, Pete. Come on," she said. She sipped her red; it left a pale bluish stain on her teeth. "He's just seventeen. It's a horrible, horrible age."

I stood, found some crackers in the pantry, a corner of cheddar in the fridge. I made myself a sandwich. It tasted good with the red. "He wasn't like this two years ago."

"And he won't be like this two years from now either. But right now it's hormones and senior year of high school and everything else. He's a bastard right now, but it won't last forever."

"I wish he weren't a bastard." I sighed and refilled my glass. "Sometimes I actually hate him. You know what that feels like? To hate your own kid? But he talks to me with that mouth and I just..."

"I know," she said.

"I want to kill him."

"I know."

What Ms Grodstein has captured here is the overflow of helplessness that makes intelligent people talk childishly about their children. "He wasn't like this two years ago" — what kind of dumb remark is that? Of course he wasn't "like this" two years ago! As for respect, calling his son a "little shit" is more belittling than endearing, no matter how sweetly Pete means it. You do not even think of people whom you admire, even if they're your children, as "little shits." The brief passage tells us more about Pete's problems with Alec than his narrative can; it tell us something that Pete could never admit: that Alec is his personal property, his father-glorification tool.

This is not to gainsay Pete's eloquence.

It only occurred to me where I was going when I got there. Morning services were long over, and this wasn't the sort of institution that was religious enough for afternoon minhah, but still, it was a comfort just to see the building in front of me. I thought of my grandfather in his old black coat. The dozens of relatives in their black-and-white glory on my parents' foyer wall. I thought of my dead father, ushering Phil and me into our pressed black pants, walking with us hand in hand to synagogue every week. We were six years old, seven years old. I had never been on an airplane been to a baseball game been ice skating seen a mountainside but I knew the warm firm feeling of my father's hand in mine, the musty smell of that synagogue, my grandfather kissing me and my brother on our heads and slipping us each a quarter because we'd been such good boys. It's for us, Phil once told me decades ago in the Yonkers bedroom we reluctantly shared. They did all this for us. We might not like it, but we know why they did it.

And God strike me down if he wasn't right.

Many interesting things happen in A Friend of the Family, things too interesting to spoil. But the strength of the novel's imagined world is in its abiding faith that, for the most part, things are what they seem to be. This deviation from the expectations that modern fiction has cultivated is wholly successful. (February 2010)

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