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19th October
2011
written by Steph

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

14 Comments

  1. 10/19/2011

    Oh this sounds very good! Especially since you seem to think that whatever it was that happened merited the rift between the two families. (I hate when the author makes you wait for the whole book, and then the matter turns out to be somewhat trivial.) I’ll have to look for this one – sounds like it will keep me up late reading, yay!

  2. 10/19/2011

    Thank you for this post.

  3. I love the sound of this! I am always on the look out for books that are well-written and rewarding and I’m intrigued by the three questions. I’ve just ordered a copy from my library. :-)

  4. 10/20/2011

    Sandy read this one, and we discussed it a little. We talked about those parents who seem to want to control every aspect of their child’s life, and from what I gather in your review, the book really plays up this point. Now you have gotten me curious about the evil and repulsive thing that Laura did, and why that matters so much in relation to her new relationship. Very intriguing review, Steph! How can I fail to be swayed when you share a review of this caliber with us? Thanks!

  5. 10/20/2011

    Great review — I love both your attitude about this book (I’m sold, btw, and checking out my bookstore tonight!) but I also appreciate your thoughts on readable vs well written etc — TRUE — and the challenge of book blurbs representing a story well. You’re a reader’s reader — I always so enjoy your thoughts!

  6. I’m not one of those drivers, because I’m not a big fan of shock/adrenaline. But I do like to know what happens, so I might go online and do a search to know details. The same happens with books I didn’t read/finish, I’m always keen on knowing the story and how it ends, just not dwell on it. Does that make sense?

    Is this one of your best of the year so far?

  7. I’m not one of those drivers (well, I don’t drive), and I’m not one of those passengers. I normally do avert my eyes when I see a crash, lest I see something that will give me nightmares for days to come.

    This book sounds fantastic, and I’ll definitely keep an eye out for it. Who wouldn’t, if the book was well-written and rewarding?

  8. 10/26/2011

    I read this a couple years ago when it was first released. I remember having similar thoughts as you, that it was very multi-dimensional and succeeded in that regard. I also remember, however, being slightly disappointed at the end. The whole book, we’re prepping for whatever “awful” thing Pete did, and I remember finally learning what it was and thinking, “….That’s it?” And I don’t even remember what it is now! So while I know I agreed with a lot of what you said, this book obviously didn’t really stick with me.

  9. This one sounds so good! I love the cover :)

  10. 10/27/2011

    Ooh, you’ve piqued my interest. It’s always great to come across a book I’ve never heard of that has really grabbed hold of the reader.

  11. 10/27/2011

    @ Jill: I definitely think that the thing that caused the rift was sufficiently bad and shocking that I believed it would have all the consequences that it did… definitely not trivial! I think you’ll like this one a lot… it’s very juicy!
     
    @ Mystica: I’m glad you enjoyed it!
     
    @ Jackie: I think you’d find this one really rewarding; the pacing is strong, but it’s a good balance of plot with strong internal life for the characters and the writing is strong. I hope you enjoy it when it comes in from the library!
     
    @ zibilee: You have no idea how controlling Dr. Pete is! It kind of must be witnessed to be believed. I mean, if I ever have kids, you can bet I’ll be hands on, and yet obviously one day you’ve got to let those little birds fly away…
    Oh man, and the repulsive thing Laura does is SO bad. Like I wasn’t sure what she could have done that was quite so bad and when I found out, I was shocked!
     
    @ Audra: Oh, I hope you do pick up a copy of this because it’s such a fun read, but also so well written. One of those books that you will enjoy reading because Grodstein crafts everything so well. It’s such a complex book; for all its flashy pacing, it’s got a lot of substance there too.
     
    @ Alex: If a book is dragging on or just making me crazy due to the writing but the story is interesting enough, I will definitely go online to find out what happened. In fact, I did that with the last book in the Twilight series. I wanted to know how everything turned out, but there was no way I was going to subject myself to another book. Thank goodness for Wikipedia! ;)
    I do think this was one of my top reads of the year. It’s not one of my all-time best books, but it was a really rewarding and engaging read, and it hooked me right from the start. Perhaps because I had middling expectations that aided in it completely bowling me over, but regardless, it was a great read!

  12. 10/27/2011

    @ anothercookie: I’m glad more drivers don’t avert there eyes, because that would likely lead to more accidents! ;)
     
    @ Kari: Without getting too spoilery, there are a bunch of things relating to “the bad thing” Dr. Pete did. One thing definitely sticks out in my mind and was, I think, the driving impetus for his alienation from his wife and friends. There is, of course, the divide by what Laura says happened vs. what actually did happen, but either way, Pete was surely out of line and I don’t blame people for giving him something of a cold shoulder… but also, I do think all of that was just a culmination of all the things in Pete’s life that had been spiraling out of control for a while.
     
    @ Kim: It is a nice cover! And thankfully the contents are good too!
     
    @ sakura: This is one of those smart, literary thrillers that are all too rare, I think. I mean, there are plenty of thrillers, and lots of smart fiction, but it’s not often the two combine… but when they do, they are such a treat!

  13. i love your review–you have easily sold this book for me and i’ll be looking for it when i hit the bookstore this weekend. also, gorgeous cover! :)

  14. one more thing: i love your use of ‘ballyhooing’. simply hilarious!

    and, i do try to avoid the ‘looky-loo’ syndrome. when i was a kid, my dad came home from work all spooked after rubber necking at an accident and witnessing a man’s body on a stretcher with a sheet covering him from head to ankles–the deceased man’s wingtips were uncovered and it really unnerved my dad. seeing my dad so upset taught me that rubbernecking might show me something a bit more sobering than i was bargaining for.

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