'Friend' examines pitfalls of a suburban father's best-laid plans

  • Article by: EMILY CARTER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 14, 2009 - 6:18 PM

A gripping portrayal of a suburban family in free-fall.

A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein

Internist Pete Dizinoff -- the protagonist in Lauren Grodstein's very American novel -- is a sharp diagnostician. In elegant tones of sarcastic resignation he condenses a complicated suburban malaise into one efficiently ironic comment: "Our downtown [was] where we kept our hospitals, our businesses, our blacks and the public schools that no one we know went to."

He knows just what he's doing with that "our." He's willing to look at uncomfortable truths squarely and knows exactly where he is -- not in the grotesque dreamscapes of the super-rich, with their "lush two-acre plots bearing Tudor palaces, Spanish style haciendas, Georgian piles with helicopter pads and infinity pools," but in an affluent area with Victorians and colonials, three-quarter-acre plots, enough room for children to play.

"The suburbs," Dizinoff says, after strolling to a friend's house for canapes on the deck while the kids play downstairs. "I don't care what anyone says, it's the only civilized way to live."

Dizinoff thinks he has wrestled this life of safety and plenty to lay at the feet of his wife, whom he loves, and his son, Alec, whom he loves, as we'll learn, beyond reason.

The structure of compromise and principle supporting a happy family is precariously perched to begin with, and in Grodstein's skilled hands love is an unstable element. Dizinoff's intense devotion to Alec seems like typical boomer parenting -- at first. Alec -- one of those pampered and petulant hipsters who point a finger at their parents' privileged lifestyle even while snatching the credit card -- has dropped out of his first-rate arts college. Worse, the damaged, seductive daughter of one of Dizinoff's friends has Alec in thrall, threatening Dizinoff's idea of his son's future.

Dizinoff's response is inevitable, but strangely satisfying. When "Dr. Pete" takes a nose dive, we slice the air right along with him. Part of this is Grodstein's skill at describing the New Jersey milieu where the second generation has arrived to get their piece of the dream and where the next generation betrays them utterly.

Alec, a treasured only child, demands that his father finance four years in Europe in lieu of a formal education. The femme fatale, Laura, is the daughter of gynecologist Joe Stern, who specializes in keeping premature babies alive. At 16, she killed the premature baby she secretly delivered in a public bathroom.

The wounded fathers, Dizinoff and Stern, are lifelong buddies, their relationship a believable mix of affection and friendly competition that is also not so friendly. Like their fictional New Jersey town, they're both archetypal and individual. If college applications, crickets singing in cul-de-sacs, and long drives down elm-lined roads are the details of your life, this book will startle you with its familiarity. If you've only wondered what it would be like to live in Grodstein's New Jersey, this book will show you, and if you've been a parent, a friend or anything other than a saint, you've already met its characters.

Emily Carter is the author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some."

  • A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY

    By: Lauren Grodstein.

    Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 302 pages, $23.95.

    Review: All Pete Dizinoff has ever wanted for his son, Alec, is a good education, a nice wife and a solid, suburban life like his. But when Alec drops out of college and takes up with a damaged woman, things spin out of control.

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