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This father does not know best

By Ron Charles
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY

By Lauren Grodstein

Algonquin.

302 pp. $23.95

My younger daughter has just gone off to college. To the wrong college, of course, where she's taking all the wrong classes and befriending the wrong people and basically ruining her chances of ever having a successful life.

Or at least that's what I used to think during insane moments of midnight paranoia. I'm better now, largely because I've just finished Lauren Grodstein's absorbing new novel, "A Friend of the Family." It's about a devoted dad whose parental concerns fester into a toxin that eventually poisons his life. There's nothing polemic or didactic about Grodstein's story, but she's written such an incisive diagnosis of aspirational America that someone should hand out copies at Little League games and ballet recitals.

Dr. Pete Dizinoff is the chastened narrator of this drama of self-destruction. We meet him on the eve of a court decision in a medical malpractice case that could either set him free or complete his personal and professional ruin. His marriage has collapsed, he's estranged from his son, and a patient's brother is threatening to kill him. Holed up in an apartment over his garage, he waits for the judge's verdict and ruminates on the events that have brought him to this point. His wide-ranging and often dramatic memories of family and professional crises compose the bulk of the novel.

The key to Pete's character is his rectitude. "I always had a clear sense," he says in the ominous opening pages, "of what was right and what was wrong." But unchecked, that virtue becomes a tragic flaw. Although he's an extremely sympathetic, disarmingly candid character -- a faithful husband, a loving father, a conscientious doctor -- gradually we see that he has no sympathy for others' weaknesses, no appreciation for the muddied palette of real life. "You live in black and white," his wife chides him. "You have the moral code of a teenager, that level of sophistication." His inflexibility makes him a harsh judge, and we can feel his comeuppance gathering like a terrible storm on the horizon.

What Grodstein captures so strikingly is the anxiety of a father's love, that aching affection that can flip in a moment of panicked disappointment to full-blown disgust. "I cannot number how many times," Pete says, "I've looked at him and been almost knock-kneed with pride and thought, 'Yes, yes, that's my son.' . . . There's nobody I've ever loved more."

The object of his affection is 20-year-old Alec, a perfectly rendered upper-middle-class kid: precocious and lazy, alternately sweet and petulant, overconfident and depressed, the kind of young man who could accomplish so much if he'd only put his mind to it and take advantage of what he's been given, damn it! (An eyebrow ring? Must you?)

Pete's parental anxiety is easy to satirize -- he could be the Montgomery County mascot -- but Grodstein never pushes these characters into caricatures. She has a sharp ear for the discordant tones of conversations between parents and their almost adult children. She knows how our subtle (we think!) efforts to prod them toward wise decisions incite their sarcasm, then their exasperation and finally their slammed doors. The scenes involving Alec's maddeningly casual application to college are flawlessly drawn, but so is every episode here that portrays the common tension between the desire to nurture and the need to control, to "get it right."

Grodstein is such a perceptive and knowing critic of suburbia that I kept expecting to see her driving slowly up and down my street peering in the windows. She captures "the vague but persistent smell of striving, of other people's koi ponds." Poor Pete always feels the implicit competition that must never be acknowledged by polite and friendly neighbors. And the cruelest contest, of course, involves the older children, heading off to MIT or the local state college or -- worse -- bumming around the house. "Soon enough he'll return to school," Pete reassures himself nervously, "finish a degree, meet a nice girl, and forge a career. . . . This was -- and is -- my truest, most deeply longed-for fantasy. It's so simple. It shouldn't be so hard."

The real crisis of this novel is sparked by Alec's infatuation with Pete's best friend's daughter, a 31-year-old woman who has recently returned home after years of bohemian living. As a teenager, she committed a shocking crime, but now everyone has moved on, forgotten and forgiven -- except Pete, who views this dissipated young woman as a "basket case," a direct threat to everything he wants for his son. "Pete, relax, okay?" his patient wife tells him, but he has yet to realize that there's no greater aphrodisiac than a parent's anxious disapproval. What follows is a tragedy all the more painful for its avoidability, if only Pete's expectations for his son weren't so rigid, if only his love weren't so desperate.

My single complaint concerns the novel's needlessly scrambled structure. Obviously, it's meant to represent Pete's wandering memory during this dark night of the soul, but it sometimes comes across as merely calculating and coy, the author's attempt to manipulate extra suspense with misdirection and delay. Grodstein's material is engaging enough without nesting memories inside of memories and leaving us wondering exactly where we are in the chronology of Pete's downfall.

But the last 50 pages of the novel swell to such a gripping climax that you won't recall any confusion along the way. Horrifyingly plausible and deeply poignant, "A Friend of the Family" will leave you shaken and chastened -- and grateful for the warning.

You can follow Ron Charles on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.

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