Neuroses and dark desires flood A Friend of the Family, Lauren Grodstein's story of a man's midlife crisis and the wreckage that follows.
Dr. Pete Dizinoff, the narrator of this melancholy and emotionally suspenseful novel, shares an amicable partnership and a so-so sex life with his loyal wife, Elaine, in an impeccably upscale suburb of New Jersey. For his whole life, Pete has worked hard to meet his immigrant parents’ expectations for his success, and demands in turn that he and Elaine’s son, Alec, do the same. For his only child to “finish a degree, meet a nice girl, and forge a career,” followed by grandbabies, is Pete’s “truest, most deeply longed-for fantasy.”
Alec rebels, of course, and in Pete’s effort to control him, his ethical boundaries begin to blur. Pete pens and posts Alec’s successful college application essays, then becomes violently overprotective when Alec begins dating Laura, a beautiful 31-year-old redhead whose presence in his son’s life arouses overwhelming feelings of both desire and repulsion in Pete, in ways that he is unable to articulate or fully justify. Though he’s eager to be seen as a mensch, Pete is marked by a repressed vindictive streak that breaks out in nasty ways at unpredictable moments. In the flashback sequences that make up most of the 300-page story, Pete recollects the ups and downs of his 30-year marriage to Elaine, trying to assess where and why his life went so monumentally wrong.
Grodstein’s prose is intense, measured, and sincere. Though dark and harrowing at times, the book is difficult to put down. What emerges is a disturbing portrait of a flawed human being struggling with his emotional limitations in the throes of midlife.