While planning for our vacation to Seattle, I pulled some books from my shelves to consider bringing along. That stack fueled my thoughts about a “free range reading summer.” A Friend of the Family was one that came along for the trip. According to LibraryThing, I’ve had this novel on my shelves for about five years. I’m pretty sure I bought this copy at Borders, so it’s clearly been a while, and given the number of LT friends who also have it in their libraries, it’s also clearly one of those “books I bought because of other book bloggers.” (I wasn’t as wise to imprints then as I am now, but if I had been, the fact that this book came from Algonquin would have been one more point in its favor.)
A Friend of the Family is narrated by Dr. Pete Dizinoff, a man in midlife who is in crisis (not to be confused with “a man in midlife crisis,” but that may also be applicable). He and his wife are semi-separated (he’s living in the apartment above their garage). He is awaiting the verdict on a wrongful-death lawsuit after failing to diagnose a rare disease in a young female patient. And his college-age son, Alec, has shut him out after Pete’s interference drove his girlfriend off to parts unknown. Laura was the oldest daughter of the Dizinoffs’ closest friends, nearly a decade older than Alec, and their New Jersey town still remembers that she was once the teenage girl who secretly gave birth and then murdered the baby.
Early in the novel, it feels like author Lauren Grodstein gives similar weight to the deaths of Pete’s patient and Laura’s baby. This suggested to me that they might somehow be linked, and that stoked the sense of urgency and discomfort I felt throughout my reading of A Friend of the Family. But the emphasis on these events shifts further on into the story, until one wonders if the connection is simply that Pete’s preoccupation with trying to thwart Alec and Laura’s relationship left him inadequately attentive to his work. Ultimately, I may have been trying to make a connection that the author never intended. That left me a little frustrated, but it was less frustrating than the fact that I never felt I had a clear grasp on exactly why Pete was so motivated to interfere with Alec and Laura. Was he attracted to her himself? Did he still hold her teenage crime against her? Did he just not think she was good enough for his son?
Honestly, Pete might have been motivated by all of those reasons, or any of them, or others I can’t easily identify, and that’s actually what sustains A Friend of the Family It has the trappings of a thriller, but the suspense is driven by character rather than by plot. What frustrated me is integral to what makes this novel provocative and worthwhile. I’m not sure I’d call Pete Dizinoff an unreliable narrator, but I do think he’s ultimately an untrustworthy one. He’s both self-absorbed and self-deluded, which leads me to conclude that any lack of clarity in his intentions is fully intentional on Grodstein’s part; this novel is far too well-written to believe otherwise. I didn’t find this novel entirely satisfying, but I did find it difficult to put down or to stop thinking about, and I’d say that makes it a success.
Pete Dizinoff, a skilled and successful New Jersey internist, has a loving and devoted wife, a network of close friends, an impressive house, and, most of all, a son, Alec, now nineteen, on whom he has pinned all his hopes. But Pete hadn’t expected his best friend’s troubled daughter to set her sights on his boy. When Alec falls under her spell, Pete sets out to derail the romance, never foreseeing the devastating consequences.
In a riveting story of suburban tragedy, Lauren Grodstein charts a father’s fall from grace as he struggles to save his family, his reputation, and himself.
From Chapter Two:
“Looking back, as my circumstances often suggest that I do, I see my thirties and forties as a vast steppe; only occasionally did the landscape bulge or dip. Bert Birch had brought me in because he was heading into his midfifties and his wife had been warning him for twenty years that she’d leave him if he didn’t find a partner and take a vacation with her once a year. In 1982, Bert was fifty-five, an old-fashioned kind of doctor in an old-fashioned kind of office with one nurse, one secretary, and half a day off on Wednesdays. He kept Popular Mechanics in the waiting room; occasionally, quietly, he made house calls. He ran a comfortable, neighborly practice, and although he was based at Round Hill Medical Center, his patients came from the less swanky communities down the valley: Bergentown, Hopwood, Maycrest Village. They were teachers, postal workers, cops, hairdressers. Bert took care of generations of the same family, celebrating their births, mourning their deaths, bringing home, at Christmastime, fruit baskets or homemade sheet cakes or bottles of Lambrusco.”