A Friend of the FamilyBy Lauren GrodsteinAlgonquin Books304 pages$23.95
AJewish family residing in the New Jersey suburbs of New York is thesubject of this gripping novel. The father, Dr. Peter Dizinoff, is aninternist with a modest practice and some mild aspirations for"specialty cases, the sleuthy diagnoses nobody else had been able tofigure."
He and his wife, Elaine, "have known each other for more thanhalf" their lives. She has a PhD in English literature but made no useof it until their son, Alec, was in the sixth grade. At that time, shetook a job as an adjunct professor at Bergen State, where she taught abeginning survey course. They persuaded their close friends, Joe andIris Stern, to move to their town, where Joe established his practicein obstetrics and gynecology. Iris has an MBA from Wharton and is avery successful commercial banker.
The Sterns have a very bright son, Neal, who is an MITgraduate. Their daughter, Laura, at 17, became pregnant and delivered ababy who was found dead in a trash can. Following a trial, she was sentto 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, shereturned home.
Laura, who is 10 years older than Alec, establishesa relationship with him that is frowned upon by his parents. They areespecially disturbed by his having dropped out of college toconcentrate on an unsuccessful attempt to establish himself as apainter. There is some flimsy evidence that he is going to continue hisstudies in New York. However, Laura and Alec announce that they areleaving for Paris.
The surface tranquility that has characterized the lives of theSterns and the Dizinoffs now deteriorates at an accelerating pace. Notonly are the relationships between the two families in jeopardy, butPeter and Elaine quarrel vigorously to the point of her seeking adivorce. Peter's life is further complicated when he misses a diagnosisand a young woman patient dies. Her father and brother threaten him.The downward spiral continues as Elaine discovers that she has breastcancer. The plight of this family reaches crisis proportions.
The numerous references to the Jewishness of thecharacters are augmented by an amusing vignette in which the Dizinoffsmake several secret visits to a synagogue in Brooklyn that is filledwith "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 asyoungsters and helps to round out the depiction of this couple.
Author Grodstein, with one previous novel to her credit, hassucceeded in shattering the image of suburban happiness. Her perceptiveportrayals demonstrate the thinness of the veneer that separates blissfrom gloom. While there are occasional glitters of comic relief, thisis essentially a story of disaster. It is told with great understandingand sensitivity, gripping readers so that they will find the book hardto put down.
The writer is the founding dean, Wurzweiler School of SocialWork, Yeshiva University, and dean emeritus, School of Social Work,University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.