Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Friend of the Family

Pete Dizinoff has a pretty perfect life: he's an internist, married to a beautiful woman with a PhD, he's best friends with Joe, a high-risk obstetrician, and he lives comfortably. When his aimless artist son Alec drops out of college, Pete tries to be cool about it. When Alec becomes involved with Joe's daughter, older than Alec by ten years, and harboring a dark secret, Pete tries to stay cool. Unfortunately, Pete wants what's best for his son, even if that means coming between Alec and Joe's daughter. Even if that means sacrificing everything.

This was an unexpected masterpiece. Yes, a masterpiece. While my synopsis makes the book sound like it's a thriller, it's really not. It's a careful vivisection of suburbia, of paternal love, of the modern Jewish man, of the professional, and of the lies we tell ourselves.

The novel opens with a complicated and virtuoso first chapter that has Pete, our first person narrator, yelled at by some angry former patient, for reasons unknown to us, and then a flashback to a multifamily vacation in 1991 when the Soviet union was about to fall. Pete remembers feeling disconcerted that the black/white morality of the Cold War was about to change into something far more murky. There's also some clever foreshadowing, some of which is extremely subtle (I didn't even realize the novel was a circle until I re-read the opening chapter) and some of which is tantalizing enough that I read this book over the course of one day.

The first chapter is emblematic of the rest of the novel: the nonlinear chronology, the foreshadowing, and the clever use of the first person narration. A Friend of the Family reminded me, at first, a lot of Updike and Cheever, both authors who scraped beyond the surfaces of the modern suburban man, but as I got further into Pete's head, I realized that it was more like Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier than either of those two authors.

Pete is delusional, but not in the dramatic unreliable narrator kind of way. He isn't hallucinating or experiencing dissociative personality disorder. Rather, he's kind of clueless. He believes in a black white moral scheme, where right is right and wrong is wrong. At first, we're told this through conversations with Elaine, Pete's wife. Pete is determined to judge Laura, Joe's daughter for the crime she allegedly committed, whether or not Pete knows the full story.

Pete is rich and successful; with social stability, he's able to judge freely. He comes from a privilege reference point. What he doesn't see is that it is this privileged vantage point that doesn't allow him to contemplate a world beyond black and white, wrong and right. Because he doesn't see this, and the reader surely can, the tragedy is more heartfelt. We're always a step ahead of Pete because of this. It doesn't make the story any less or more tragic. Pete is just trying to do good.

Even when faced with a morally murky choice, Laura's crime is still at the top of the hierarchy of heinous crimes. Why not? For Pete, a physician who's job it is to save lives, the taking of life is the ultimate sin. He has no conception of any other option than to judge murder as sin.

There is a lot of subtext to this novel, and a lot is through the unreliability of first person narration. It's all done so skillfully and subtlety. Even without the subtext, the novel can be enjoyed on its own. Lauren Grodstein, the author, has a simple and clear style that manages to get into Pete's head and project masculinity (or at least, Pete's conception of masculinity). This is an author who hasn't written a novel in her voice but named the voice after somebody else. A Friend of the Family is narrated in an entirely new voice, not the author's and nobody else's. That feat alone is worthy of praise. Luckily, she blends this voice with a rather gripping plot.

It's a trainwreck, a tragedy that you can sort of see coming. You know how novels like this end: with heartbreak. But how the novel arrives at this point is surprising and extremely suspenseful. This isn't The Hunt for the Red October, but it is utterly mesmerizing. I rushed breathlessly to the end, hoping for some sort of happy ending but knowing that this wasn't possible. The structure of the novel, nonlinear full of prolepsis and tons of analepsis, is never confusing or off-putting. It's always clear, and Grodstein draws the reader into the web of plot with well-drawn characters.

Because Grodstein has made this voice so strong, it's hard to tell where Grodstein herself stands on this. Obviously we know that the world isn't a morally binary place, so we can safely assume that Grodstein pities both Pete and Laura for their respective transgressions, but what of her gentle pokes at suburbia? Both Joe and Pete make jokes and references to the much maligned and mocked affluent neighborhoods, and this piece of the puzzle fits in with Pete's position as judge and jury, but does Grodstein herself think less of suburbia? Or is it simply another place for tragedy to seed? Or is suburbia res ipsa loquitur? The difficulty of surmising this is praise-worthy itself.

A Friend of the Family is a modern masterpiece of plotting, character development and technique. There's only a few missteps, such as an overly long climactic showdown (or two) and sometimes the folksiness of the little town is grating. Otherwise, this is a fantastic enthralling and compelling read. A surprising delight.

[After writing this (and I swear this is true) I read the NY Times review and it mentions Ford Madox Ford as well. See? I can be insightful]

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