by Robert WeibezahlNovember 2009
A father’s descent into madness
Pete Dizinoff, the narrator of Lauren Grodstein’s compulsively readable novel, A Friend of the Family, is a man in crisis. The fact that it is largely a crisis of his own making, and on the whole preventable, makes reading his story somewhat akin to that strange impulse one feels to gape at a roadside accident scene, at once anticipating and dreading what you might see. Grodstein hooks readers right from the start, with the conversational, if meditative, voice of Dr. Pete, a middle-aged New Jersey internist who has been banished to a room above the garage of his suburban home.
Until recently, Pete had the perfect life, at least to his mind: a successful medical practice in Round Hill, an upscale suburb of New York City; a companionable soul mate in his wife, Elaine; and a smart and sensitive son, Alec. Things started to turn sour, though, when Alec began to act out his adolescent hostilities in high school, then failed out of Hampshire College (“our son fails out of a college that doesn’t even give grades,” Pete reflects ruefully). Back home, Alec—an aspiring artist—works on his paintings, but fails to show the level of initiative his father ordains acceptable; that is, the kind that will lead to a lucrative career, a suitable marriage and, eventually, the grandchildren Pete craves.
Pete really panics when Alec takes up with Laura Stern. In his view, Laura, the eldest daughter of Pete and Elaine’s oldest and closest friends, Joe and Iris Stern, is a totally inappropriate girlfriend for his son. For one thing, she is 10 years older. But the real issue is Laura’s past. When she was 17, Laura secretly gave birth to a premature baby in the bathroom of the public library and, most likely, killed the infant before leaving its body in a dumpster. After years of psychiatric care and an itinerant life, Laura has returned to Round Hill, seemingly restored to sanity. While he cannot express it to his wife or friends, Pete still believes in his heart that she is a “baby killer” and wants her to stay away from his son.
Rather than let a situation that everyone else recognizes as adolescent infatuation run its course, Pete’s obsession about the relationship, tinged as it is by the yearnings of his own aging libido, leads him down a path of irrational choices. It also distracts him from his medical practice, causing him to disregard some key symptoms of a young female patient, Roseanne Craig. The consequences of Roseanne’s illness, converging with his final unraveling over Alec and Laura, will destroy Dr. Pete’s perfectly orchestrated world.
There have been, of course, many books and movies about the venal underside of life in shiny American suburbs, but unlike many of her predecessors, Grodstein is not going for dark satire or indiscriminately tarring every suburban dweller with the same brush. Indeed, most everyone in A Friend of the Family is a reasonable, likeable, predictably flawed human being with whom you wouldn’t mind sharing a few hours at a weekend barbecue. Only Pete Dizinoff, with his mania for controlling his son’s life, approximates the kind of madness that a certain body of literature assures us lurks behind those well-manicured lawns. Still, we come to understand, if not condone, Pete through his reflections on his lower middle class Jewish upbringing, his aspirations, his disappointments and his long, intimate relationship with the Sterns. “Everyone who’s ever had intentions knows they mean much more than actions do,” Pete muses after an ill-advised pass at Iris Stern. That little bit of wisdom, delivered without irony, sums up everything we come to comprehend about this damaged man.
Grodstein plots the story expertly, taking it in directions we don’t expect, hinting at what is to come to build requisite tension, but saving the crucial disclosures until late in the narrative. The ending of A Friend of the Family proves something of a surprise, though, not because of the way events play out, but because in the final analysis Pete Dizinoff remains unrepentant and self-justifying. Even as it lies in shattered pieces at his feet, Dr. Pete seems unwilling, or perhaps unable, to give up his stubborn vision of the American dream.
Robert Weibezahl grew up in a suburb of New York City not unlike Round Hill.