As I was reading Lauren Grodstein’s taut and powerful novel A Friend of the Family — the story of a successful father, husband, and doctor whose happy life begins to come undone in a seriously gripping way — I recalled the razor-sharp writing of the best passages of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral or Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters. In three hundred quickly moving pages, Grodstein captures not just a sweeping portrait of suburban family life and the baby boomers’ dreams of it, but the tragedy of how unwavering fatherly pride — and the belief that how things ought to be is a compass for happiness — leads to a tragic disconnect between generations.
Laura Stern, the thirty-year-old daughter of narrator Pete Dizinoff’s best friend Joe, has returned to Round Hill, New Jersey, more than a decade after being acquitted of a horrible act of violence. She reconnects with Pete and his wife Elaine’s twenty-year-old son Alec — their only child, conceived after years of struggling with infertility — who’s dropped out of college to move into the apartment above their garage and develop his artwork. When Laura and Alec begin seeing each other, Pete starts morphing into an unreliable narrator: a man who truly loves his son and cares so much about his future that he becomes blind to the fact that Laura isn’t out to deliberately poison his son’s future. Like any concerned parent who wants to give the same quality of life to his child that he’s enjoyed, Pete wants what’s best for Alec — but of course we know that Pete’s only projecting onto Alec what he thinks is best for him.
This paradox of parenting takes on the weight of tragedy for the Dizinoff family. In the novel’s wrenching climax, Laura tells Pete that “there is no one right way to live a life.” Her words could not be truer, no matter her horrible past or the complexity of her motives towards Alec, and no matter how much we both sympathize and pity the place in which Pete has found himself.
If you’re in the mood for something dark, engrossing, and discussible, look no further than A Friend of the Family.