Friday, November 20, 2009

NEW BOOK! Review: Try your worst


Lauren Grodstein’s A Friend of the Family is attempting to do a lot in one novel. It’s about crime, medicine, getting older, and relationships between a lot of different people: parent/child, husband/wife, doctor/patient, neighbors, friends, couples. It even feels somewhat like a mystery in parts. It may sound like a lot on one plate, but I think Grodstein succeeds in creating a very multifaceted novel. This is a pretty complex story, so I apologize the length in setting it up for you.

A Friend of the Family centers around Pete Dizinoff, a middle-aged internist that is so close to having the successful life towards which he has spent years working. He’s been married to his wife Elaine for 27 years, is well-respected as a doctor, and lives in upper-middle class New Jersey suburbs near his closest friends, Joe and Iris Stern. The only thing standing in the way of Pete’s picture-perfect future is his son Alec, who is 21-year-old college dropout with a drug-history and criminal record. Alec is currently living in the studio over the garage where he paints.
Move down the street to the Stern residence and we have Joe and Iris, Pete and Elaine’s best friends from college. The Sterns are very well-off with Iris bringing in $1mil+ a year (though I still have no idea what she does). Controversy surrounded the Stern household years ago as their eldest daughter Lauren got pregnant when she was 17, had the baby premature in a library bathroom, and (supposedly) killed the premie and threw it in the dumpster. Following a lawsuit from the state of New Jersey, Laura spent some time institutionalized and then traveled all over the world, moving from one random gig to the next. Now, she’s back in Jersey and has struck up a romance with Alec, who is 10 years her junior, and Pete is not happy about it. At all.
The structure of the book is what really grabs the reader. With the story narrated by Pete, the reader knows from the beginning that he did something horrible that completely ostracizes him from his friends and family. It takes the entire novel for this to play out as we learn more about the characters and their histories, both individually and together. Grodstein jumps around in time a lot using Pete’s reminisces to give the reader a piece of the puzzle by bringing you into the past, as well as giving you a sense of both dread and urgency as you approach the conclusion.
Thematically, Grodstein gives the reader a lot to deal with. She illustrates how one event of the past has affected so many people and so many relationships. Pete still struggles with the history of Laura and the Sterns, his oldest and dearest friends, and it’s been thirteen years. When his son, for whom he has the highest hopes and highest expectations, is thrown into the mix, Pete’s rationale kind of goes out the window and his emotional instinct takes over. Moreover, Pete wants what’s best for Alec and justifies illogical actions he takes to keep Alec and Laura apart.
This book reads kinda like Roth and kinda like Russo, minus some of Roth’s suicide-inducing negativity and minus some of Russo’s optimism. I was a little disappointed in the ending, but only since it had been built up so much, I expected something sensational. Grodstein, however, opted for realism instead of over-the-top, which probably made the novel more relatable but left me wanting more.
For those of you in New York, Lauren will be appearing at KGB Bar (85 E. 4th St), this Sunday the 22nd at 7:00 pm.

A Friend of the Family was just released last week by Algonquin Press.

Review copy provided by the publisher.


Jenny said…

This sounds really good! It's the second good review I've read for this.

Salvatore said…

It sounds really intense. Although maybe a bit formulaic with the set up. Curious though. The jacket is kind of imposing.

Diane said…

Great review. It does sound like the type of book I would like. Sorry the ending was a bit disappointing for you.

bermudaonion said…

I'm really looking forward to reading this one. You've got me really curious about the ending, though.

sarah Pekkanen said…

I've read a few reviews for this one and I'm intrigued.. thanks for the review.