Quick question for you: are you one of those drivers who loves to rubberneck? You know the kind of driver I mean – the one who slows to a crawl whenever a traffic accident occurs, rolling by at 15 mph so that you can get a good look at the crash in all its faded glory. Don’t even bother denying that you don’t do it, because I’ve been stuck in enough traffic due to people needing to gawk at fender benders to know that the human tendency to stop and stare at tragedy is hard to resist.
If you’re worried this is about to escalate into a judgmental diatribe about bad drivers, fear not! Rather, all this talk of ogling wrecks is merely a prelude to discussing Lauren Grodstein’s A Friend of the Family, which is kind of like literary ode to the trainwrecks of life. Note, that there aren’t any actual trains or vehicular accidents that occur in this novel, but so much shit goes down in it that it is certainly the metaphorical equivalent! The back cover of A Friend of the Family is rather opaque but alluring in its description of the novel, and I do think this is one of those novels where its best to let Grodstein do the storytelling rather than me sharing it secondhand. All I really knew going into this book was that it involves two families (the Dizinoffs and the Sterns) who used to be quite close but ultimately grew apart when a scandal involving the Stern’s eldest daughter takes place. Flashforward a decade or so and the Dizinoffs are struggling with their own set of problems… problems that come to a head when fallen daughter, Laura Stern, reemerges and reenters the picture, not at all afraid to cause some problems and with her sights set on the Dizinoff’s only son.
I admit it: the back cover, for all its vagaries, piqued my interest, as did the positive feedback my friends over at BookPage had given the book. And yet part of me kind of expected this book to be a cheesy summer thriller and not much more. I’m so happy to say that I completely underestimated A Friend of the Family, and that I was actually shocked at how good it was! You have to allow that the back-cover pitch makes the book sound like it might be something of the mass-market pulp ilk, but I assure you that this book is so much more than a delicious page-turner. Now, don’t get me wrong: once you pick this book up, you will not want to put it down until you’ve turned that last page, but the reason for that is due to Grodstein nailing the trifecta that makes for a fabulous read on all three of its heads. A Friend of the Family not only delivers a sinister story, but packages that story within impeccable plotting and pacing and delivers it all up via incredibly strong prose as well. Within the first chapter, Grodstein poses at least three compelling questions to the reader that will make foraying forwards into the dark depths of the rest of the novel a foregone conclusion. In under 30 pages, you will be grasped with the insatiable need to know what Laura Stern did that was so bad that it drove two families apart (and when you find out, you will be repulsed but also all the more intrigued). You will also want to know why Peter Dizinoff is living in his family’s garage, estranged from his wife. And why is Peter so fastidiously avoiding incessant calls from his old pal Joe Stern?
It’s easy enough to boil stories down to back-cover blurbs that will attract a readership looking for something to take to the beach, but what those blurbs inevitably miss out on are the nuances that really make a book great. Grodstein has created an impressively complicated novel, but makes it all look deceptively simple and appealing. In that sense, A Friend of the Family is a lot like origami; readers are presented with a striking paper crane, and are largely blind to all of the precise folds and fingerwork needed to transform a plain sheet of paper into something meaningful. After all, A Friend of the Family isn’t just a literary thriller or a story pulsing with menace. It’s also a story about the storms families weather, what it means to be a parent and realize your child is no longer a child, no longer yours to protect, and how our futures are written in our pasts. From the very start you know this will not be a happy tale and yet you will be powerless to tear yourself away from watching a man make all the wrong choices, all while thinking what he’s doing is for the best. As a reader you can’t help but feel Pete’s frustration and fears about losing his son, and this in turn only makes Alec fight him all the harder to get away, and so the cycle of resentment and the battle for power and control rages on in perpetuity, eventually spiraling out far beyond the initial combatants. This is a book with a lot of anger simmering and boiling over and Grodstein gets those emotions so right. She’s not afraid to take the idea of parental control to the very limits (for example, at one point Pete suggests to Joe Stern that he simply forbid Laura from doing something, even though Laura is 30-years old at this point!) and seeing what dark and scary places that takes us.
There’s been a lot of ballyhooing on the web lately about books being either “readable” or being “literary”. Such a debate is ridiculous in my opinion, but if you need a tangible example of a book that’s going to have wide appeal, is immensely rewarding to read, AND well written? Voila! People are complicated. Life is complicated. Grodstein gets that, and also seems to realize that perhaps it’s when things don’t go exactly as planned that things actually start to get interesting. A Friend of the Family is really smart, really sharp, really electrifying and completely engrossing; it’s an excellent example of contemporary fiction, and I am so glad I picked it up. Needless to say, I am really eager to see what else Grodstein can do and will keep my eye on her.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5