Sunday, November 29, 2009

Review: A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein

After opening with main character Pete Dizinoff directly addressing the reader from his altered circumstances: living over the garage in what used to be his son's apartment while his son and wife live in the family home just yards away, this novel conceals much of itself while only slowly unfolding its plot for the reader. Pete lets the reader know that he is facing malpractice charges and that his wife will be seeing a divorce attorney as soon as his professional fate has been decided but there is a tantalizing lack of information about why either of these things has been put into motion.

From this beginning, we are plunged back in time to the events that will lead to the unravelling of the Dizinoff family, Pete's reputation as a doctor, a lifelong friendship, and the very life that he spent so many years building. Pete reminisces about his college years and young married life, his and Elaine's friendship with the Sterns and the eventual much-wished for birth of son Alec. Then he jumps to the Stern's daughter Laura, ten years Alec's senior, and the terrible event that defines her life and cements her character in Pete's mind. So when she returns to town and captivates a now adult Alec, Pete finds himself incapable of moving past his fixed idea of her and so steps in to, in his mind, save his son. His obsession with this relationship causes him to make several poor choices, directly leading to his position at the start of the novel.

Throughout the narrative, Elaine has maintained that he sees things in black and white and that he must learn to be more forgiving of the shades of grey. But Pete pushes to understand and question Laura as no one else does and the reader will find sympathy wavering back and forth between characters who are all deeply flawed and imperfect. Each of them is complex and complete, even when witholding information. The book itself is compelling and addictive and the need to discover Pete's transgressions and Laura's unspeakable act drives the reader to keep turning pages. But the story is about so much more than Pete or Laura. It is about trust and forgiveness and the nature of friendship. I greedily gulped through the story itself, pausing only at the end, briefly disappointed in Laura's parting accusation for its gratuitousness. The story stood strongly without it. Will it help me from trying to interfere in my own childrens' lives even for their own good? Probably not, but it certainly does stand as a monolithic cautionary tale about such interventions. More than just a family struggle, this is a tautly written gem of a novel.

Thanks to the folks at Algonquin Books for sending me a review copy of this book.


  1. Thank you for your insightful review, Kristen. I like books that explore family relationships and the consequences of choices made. I'm especially intrigued by the way the author lets the story unfold slowly, not giving away too many details up front. I will have to look for this one and give it a try.

  2. What a thoughtful, beautifully written review! This sounds like a terrific novel. I am intrigued by what you said about the themes.

  3. Fantastic review, I hadn't heard of this one but your review is so good I now want to read this "gem of a novel"


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