Fathers and sons

In this well-wrought house of mirrors, a self-righteous, overprotective doctor splinters family and friends

In Lauren Grodstein’s novel, a father tries to end an affair between his 21-year-old and a friend’s older, troubled daughter. In Lauren Grodstein’s novel, a father tries to end an affair between his 21-year-old and a friend’s older, troubled daughter. (Nina Subin)
By David Thoreen
Globe Correspondent / November 22, 2009

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In both the conception and execution of her stunning new novel, “A Friend of the Family,’’ Lauren Grodstein has channeled Edgar Allan Poe and his glowing review of Hawthorne’s “Twice-Told Tales.’’

Here is Poe, theorizing: “A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out he then . . . combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step.’’ Grodstein has made sharp practice of Poe’s theory, and she has done so not merely with a tale but a novel, which begins, “These days, when people ask how I’m doing - some of them still ask, you’d be surprised - I shrug and say, as manfully as I can, ‘Much better than you’d think.’ ’’

So we are introduced to Pete Dizinoff, Grodstein’s first-person narrator and protagonist. This first step - and each step that follows - is an unqualified success. Grodstein’s sentences are finely made and precisely fitted to one another and her story, but she is not the sort of writer who sends sentences up like fireworks, showering us with polysyllabic sparks. No, the real pyrotechnics here are structural; nothing is extraneous or coincidental. Poe’s own “William Wilson’’ comes to mind, for layered beneath the plot is a series of doubled images and actions, subtle enough that some readers will finish the novel without realizing they’ve just navigated a hall of mirrors. But trust me, all that glass is dangerous.

Grodstein is the author of two previous books, a collection of stories, “The Best of Animals’’ (2004), and a short novel, “Reproduction is the Flaw of Love’’ (2005) - she’s earned her craft, in other words, and if there’s any justice in the world, “A Friend of the Family’’ will be her breakout book.

Now in his 50s, Dizinoff has until recently practiced internal medicine in a New Jersey suburb called Round Hill. By all appearances an eminently safe man, Pete wants us to know he’s not without ambition. “[W]hat I longed for,’’ he tells us early on, “were the specialty cases, the sleuthy diagnoses nobody else had been able to figure. I’d caught the Sherlock Holmes bug during a medical school rotation.’’ We’ve been warned - “internist’’ describes Pete’s practice as a narrator, too.

Pete’s is the story of two couples and their children. He and his wife, Elaine, have one child, a son, Alec, who has returned home after three expensively misspent semesters at Hampshire College. “[O]ur son fails out of a college that doesn’t even give grades,’’ Pete observes, “and in response we build him an art studio above our garage.’’ Pete’s college lab partner, Joe Stern, and his wife, Iris, have four children, starting with Laura, 10 years older than Alec - but then they have more of everything, more sex (years of sharing small beach houses with the Sterns make Pete a credible if hardly dispassionate judge), more parties, more money (Iris, a Wharton grad, now clears a million a year). But then the Sterns also have more trouble, more sorrow, starting, again, with Laura.

When she was 17 and in high school, Laura added to what Pete terms “a rash of neonaticides across New Jersey.’’ The facts of Laura’s case are not for the faint of heart, and they come to us filtered through Pete’s medical training and moral sensibility, a sensibility that registers only absolutes. “You live in black and white,’’ his wife says, and a moment later, “You don’t know the entire story.’’ The case went to trial; Laura was found not guilty.

Now, 13 years later, Alec has a question for his father: “Did Laura Stern really kill her baby?’’ Alec is curious because he’s not the only one returned to town. Laura is back, too, and unmarried, beautiful, uninhibited, and attentive - at least to Alec. Is Pete being paranoid, or has she really set her sights on his son? Does she really believe Alec can save her? Pete is relieved when he hears Laura call his son “kid,’’ but should he be? Behind Pete stands Grodstein, and she’s got irony up her sleeve.

Pete answers Alec’s question elliptically, saying only that he’s “content to have faith in the judicial system’s verdict.’’ Alec may be 21, but Pete is still trying to protect him. He has a different story for us: “I hadn’t believed the State of New Jersey’s verdict for a single second.’’

What unfolds in the 200 perfect pages that follow, I won’t say.

In part, Poe championed Hawthorne’s tales because of their brevity; he felt the novel to be inferior because it cannot be read in one sitting. But in “A Friend of the Family,’’ Grodstein answers Poe in perhaps the only terms he would have understood - she has written a novel that will leave her reader sitting up, sifting the evidence in the dead of night.

David Thoreen teaches writing and literature at Assumption College in Worcester. His most recent poems appear in Great River Review and Slush Pile.

A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY By Lauren Grodstein

Algonquin, 304 pp., $23.95

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