Wednesday, November 25, 2009

New This Month: A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein

It was the cover that drew me in. A man standing at the edge of a vast sea. Waiting for something to come in? Watching as something disappears? Just staring? Walking into it? I didn’t know. I just knew that I’d been that man once or twice -- and that was enough.

A Friend of the Family (Algonquin), the spectacular new novel by Lauren Grodstein, is a play of intricacies. It’s a book about the details, and each of them rings as clearly as notes in a song. In fact, the novel feels more composed than written, its notes carefully woven through, each with its own tone and color.

There are times when Grodstein’s use of certain notes catches your breath; she’ll mention something in passing, some detail, then mention it again at the moment it will have massive impact, when they’ll bring fresh tension and new dimension to already tense scenes. She plants these moments quietly, with no foreshadowing; you only know they matter when they burst open later. Brilliant.

The novel’s protagonist, Pete Dizinoff, is a middle-aged doctor with a wife and a son. His life has all the normal beats. If it weren’t so ominous, it’d be blessedly boring. Pete and his wife have been best friends with the Sterns for years. Their kids grew up together as the two sets of parents grew older, into their middle age. They’ve expereinced their lives together, side-by-side, even weathering the catastrophe that befell the Sterns’ daughter Laura when she was a teenager.

Laura is several years older than Pete’s son, Alec -- and the novel’s action, tension, violence, and climax all hinge on the budding and unfortunate relationship that flowers between the two of them. Pete is worried -- well, a lot more than worried -- that Laura’s darkness will rub off on his son, just when his son is figuring out who he is. Pete spends much of the novel trying to make sense of a world that seems determined to undermine his family and his life.

Grodstein fills her novel with not only the complexities of family and long-standing friendships, but also with the tension that occurs between outer and inner dialogue. When two people speak with each other, we experience what they say, of course. But Grodstein adds another layer to many of these conversations. She lets us know what one of the characters is thinking; sometimes the thoughts comment on the conversation, sometimes they’re a daydream that has nothing to do with it, and sometimes there are tenuous links, as if the spoken word has inspired thought ... and vice versa. It’s an incredibly captivating and complex device, and so completely right for this book. Remarkable, the author juggles all of this with an expertise that other writers will envy. I sure did.

Each of Grodstein’s characters has a unique texture. Silk here, sandpaper there, almost literally. They come across more like people than characters, like friends you might see in the neighborhood grocery or at the movies. None, though, is more developed than Pete. He’s a guy with butter on his hands, trying to hold on to a glass bowl, but it keeps slipping away and he manges to keep catching it -- until it finally falls and shatters. Likewise, Pete is desperate to keep hold of Alec, who does all he can to squirm out of his father’s grasp. Their shattered relationship echoes throughout the book, poisoning everything that matters most to Pete. He’s a man who loves his son without limits and without question, and he’ll do anything to protect him, even if it means he could lose him in the process. Pete is a man you root for, feel sorry for, understand fully, and are confused by, each in turn and all at the same time. That Grodstein pulls him off is a master stroke.

A Friend of the Family is a searing, unforgettable portrait of a family in crisis, haunted by the past and terrified of a possible -- even probable -- future. It’s fiction at its very best.

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