At 53, Pete Dizinoff feels like he has built a successful life for himself: successful marriage, great friends, a respected physician practice and all the trappings. But when he sees his only son, Alec, veer off the path Pete hopes for him, Pete’s desperation to “save his son” devastates his whole life.
To be honest, Pete reminded me a bit of Neil Perry’s father in Dead Poets Society (you know, the mean man who wouldn’t let Sean Robert Leonard pursue his dream of acting), and that made it very difficult for me to sympathize with him at all. He actually thinks things like if his son doesn’t graduate from college, he won’t be able to look people in the eye anymore because they will give him looks of pity. Ummm…ok.
The novel is actually set up in such a way that we start by knowing Pete has done some horrible thing which has distanced him from his wife, son and longstanding best friends Joe and Iris. And we suspect it has something to do with Joe and Iris’ oldest daughter Laura, who has come back to town after more than a decade away and begins a relationship with Alec. Laura, by the way, is by far the character with the most intriguing story – at 17 she gave birth to a premature baby in the library bathroom and smashed in its skull – but unfortunately her motivation is never explored in any real depth which makes her seem more like a plot point than a real person. In any case, due to this narrative structure, you are compelled to read on to find out what Pete could’ve done that was so terrible he even lost his practice.
Grodstein is a great writer – scenes flowed, sentences impressed, the story engaged – but I was a bit disappointed in the big showdown at the end where we finally find out what Pete did to fall from grace. The revelation was frankly disproportionate to the amount of pages it takes to get there.
Where it does excel is as a portrait of a middle-aged man trying to come to terms with life and death and contemplating his own legacy. So if you enjoy in-depth character studies of not-so sympathetic men as they grapple with family dynamics, this one is a real winner.
A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY is available now in hardcover (the book jacket featured is from the paperback which will come out in November 2010). Find out more about it at the author’s website.