Monday, February 8, 2010

'A Friend of the Family' Builds Suspense, But Ultimately Fizzles

I wanted to like Lauren Grodstein's A Friend of the Family. I really wanted to. But in the end, I was disappointed. The novel was named one of Amazon's Best Books of the Month in November 2009; critics gave it rave reviews. Usually, that means something. And I'll have to hand it to Grodstein -- she made me interested in her story and in her characters. I wanted to know: what did Dr. Pete Dizinoff do? And truly, that is the driving question behind the story.

In the novel's beginning, Grodstein writes, from Pete's perspective, that he "ha[s] a home, of sorts -- the room [he] built . . . above the garage" (1) behind his house. She then relates a scene in which a half-drunk can of beer is thrown at Pete by a young man who obviously holds disdain for him; "'I'll get you!' the kid on the boat screams" (12) as Pete walks along the Hudson River. Slowly -- and I do mean slowly -- Grodstein introduces her readers to several problems in the dream life Pete and his wife have built. They live in a suburb of New York City, and Pete has made it his business to look be an early detector for unusual diseases. It's his specialty in his internal medicine practice, and he takes pride in his constant perusals of the Journal of the American Medical Association. But disaster strikes as his son pursues his own dreams rather than those of his parents, a friend's daughter moves back into town, and his medical practice comes under fire.

But which is the problem that has caused Pete to be banished to the garage apartment, and what exactly is his crime involving that problem? That we don't find out until very late in the book, and by that time I had lost all interest in anything else. It's almost as though Grodstein does TOO good a job at building suspense. She doesn't know when to let go and tell a good story. Because there are pieces of good stories mixed into the novel -- infanticide, adultery, cancer, art versus education... However, none of these are developed into a full plot with a timely climax. And while I was searching for the answer to the above question (What did Dr. Pete do?), I completely skipped over large sections of (what I'm sure was) beautiful prose and character development. 'Yes, yes,' I could almost hear myself thinking out loud, 'He's tortured. I get it! He loves his wife. I get it! And his son. I get it! But what did he DO?' Grodstein held out a little too long, and in the end I was flipping pages in the hopes that the next paragraph/ page would hold the answer.

When I finally found out, I was disappointed. I won't say more -- I don't want to spoil the story for those of you who will go on and read it. But it was disappointing to me. And the eventual ending? Also disappointing. True-to-life, perhaps, but disappointing all the same. And I never really developed any sort of empathy for the main characters. Pete is self-absorbed; his son is immature; his wife is a pushover; and the "friend of the family" Laura is a bizarre portrait of a troubled young girl with little reasoning given for her crisis-bound state.

Still want to try the novel for yourself? Remember, most people loved it, including more experienced critics than me!**

**Note on the use of "me" rather than "I": I consulted with Grammar Girl on this one, and she says both "me" and "I" are correct after "than", according to standard English. On one hand, this is because the "understood" parts of the sentence can be more than one thing. For example, I could have been saying: "Remember, most people loved it, including more experienced critics than [I am]." But something else to think about is the way it sounds. Grammar Girl says that most people aren't going to say, "I'm taller than he," because it "sounds too formal in casual setting." Also, there is much debate on whether or not "than" can sometimes be a conjunction and or whether it is always a preposition. Prepositionists say "me" would always be correct after "than", while conjunctionists argue that "I" is often correct.

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