Trouble in suburbia

A Jewish family residing in the New Jersey suburbs of New York is the subject of a gripping novel.

January 26, 2010 20:38
2 minute read.


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A Friend of the Family
By Lauren Grodstein
Algonquin Books
304 pages

A Friend of the Family, by...

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A Jewish family residing in the New Jersey suburbs of New York is the subject of this gripping novel. The father, Dr. Peter Dizinoff, is an internist with a modest practice and some mild aspirations for "specialty cases, the sleuthy diagnoses nobody else had been able to figure."

He and his wife, Elaine, "have known each other for more than half" their lives. She has a PhD in English literature but made no use of it until their son, Alec, was in the sixth grade. At that time, she took a job as an adjunct professor at Bergen State, where she taught a beginning survey course. They persuaded their close friends, Joe and Iris Stern, to move to their town, where Joe established his practice in obstetrics and gynecology. Iris has an MBA from Wharton and is a very successful commercial banker.

The Sterns have a very bright son, Neal, who is an MIT graduate. Their daughter, Laura, at 17, became pregnant and delivered a baby who was found dead in a trash can. Following a trial, she was sent to a psychiatric facility from which she was released after two years. She went first to Hawaii, then to her aunt's goat farm in Pennsylvania. Later, she spent time in California and, finally, after 13 years, she returned home.

Laura, who is 10 years older than Alec, establishes a relationship with him that is frowned upon by his parents. They are especially disturbed by his having dropped out of college to concentrate on an unsuccessful attempt to establish himself as a painter. There is some flimsy evidence that he is going to continue his studies in New York. However, Laura and Alec announce that they are leaving for Paris.

The surface tranquility that has characterized the lives of the Sterns and the Dizinoffs now deteriorates at an accelerating pace. Not only are the relationships between the two families in jeopardy, but Peter and Elaine quarrel vigorously to the point of her seeking a divorce. Peter's life is further complicated when he misses a diagnosis and a young woman patient dies. Her father and brother threaten him. The downward spiral continues as Elaine discovers that she has breast cancer. The plight of this family reaches crisis proportions.

The numerous references to the Jewishness of the characters are augmented by an amusing vignette in which the Dizinoffs make several secret visits to a synagogue in Brooklyn that is filled with "survivors and sufferers - as well as vegetarians, lesbians, Ethiopians and hippies." The rabbi is a woman with a "flabby torso." The experience makes them think of the Orthodox shuls they attended as youngsters and helps to round out the depiction of this couple.

Author Grodstein, with one previous novel to her credit, has succeeded in shattering the image of suburban happiness. Her perceptive portrayals demonstrate the thinness of the veneer that separates bliss from gloom. While there are occasional glitters of comic relief, this is essentially a story of disaster. It is told with great understanding and sensitivity, gripping readers so that they will find the book hard to put down.

The writer is the founding dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University, and dean emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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