Friday, December 11, 2009

Relaxing Reading for the Holidays: Lauren Grodstein's A Friend of the Family

I have administered my last final exam of the semester and now feel prepared to go into full holiday mode. Of course, there are still  papers and exams to grade, but I don't consider that work. I blog while my students write their final exams and the grading goes nicely while accompanied by Law and Order marathons. I even have my own collection of Law and Order DVDs to accompany grading. As I mentioned before, I am really into procrastinating as a way of life and the only art form I am talented enough to practice, so I have a nice holiday schedule planned out to reward myself for pulling through the first semester on tenure-track. A huge part of the plan consists of lying in bed (possibly, for days in a row) and reading really mindless, relaxing books on my Kindle. As a result, I am now on a search mission for this type of books*. You need to remember that, as a college professor, my holidays last for over a month, so a lot of reading can be done in that time.

The first relaxing holiday reading that I discovered was Lauren Grodstein's A Friend of the Family. I never heard of this author before, but my Kindle suggested it, and it knows me pretty well by now, so I took its advice**. The book is an easy, fast-flowing, engaging read. The plot is organized around the kind of obsessive Jewish parenthood that comes as a result of an existence consciously stunted in every other respect. The protagonist, Peter Dizinoff, is completely invested into playing the role of a dedicated husband, good father, helpful doctor, and nice friend. His most cherished goal is "to be a good boy," and he strives tirelessly to avoid veering off the path of goodness, as he perceives it. He rarely dares to form an opinion of his own, let alone express it. Peter cherishes the extremely rare instances where he did attempt to have and express his own point of view and never fails to mention whether his wife approved of this particular opinion thereby allowing him to hold it.

The intelligent, successful woman Peter really loved did not want him, so he settles into a conventional and convenient marriage with a woman who is kind of OK but does not awaken any profound emotions on his part. He lives his entire life with this woman who only has sex because it makes for a "healthy marriage" and who only needs him around to pay bills and look good to her neighbors. His career goes pretty well, but, once again, it is far from being what he imagined.

As a result, he channels his unspent emotions into an obsessive fixation on his son Alec. Alec is a gifted artist and wants to live in a way that would allow him to develop his gift. His father, however, has different plans for him. Peter expects Alec to serve the purpose of validating his existence. He wants his son to graduate from college, find a job, get married, move to the suburbs, and start producing grandchildren for him. When Peter discovers that Alec has a different vision of his own life, he goes into an uncontrollable rage.

Peter sees himself as a great father, even though he is completely incapable of recognizing his son's right to have his own dreams, beliefs, opinions, and wishes. The following dialogue between Peter and his wife reveals the exact nature of Peter's fixation on Alec: "'Pete, would you want Alec married and miserable for your sake, or happy and alone for his?' 'Married and miserable,' I said." Peter keeps asking himself why his son cannot just be "obedient," just like his father. He never stops to question himself, however, about how much happiness his life of following the rules and being obedient brought him.

In general, Grodstein is not an extremely strong writer. She did, however, manage to tap into the reality of a horrifyingly invasive and obsessively destructive parenthood. I really enjoyed reading this novel because it rings very true in this respect. It is truly scary to realize that there are many parents like Peter around us.

* According to the survey I posted recently, people prefer me to write things other than book reviews. However, the book reviews bring the greatest number of visitors to the blog. Which is another incomprehensible mystery I am facing today.

** I can't believe I don't have to wait for books to go into the paperback edition any more. I spent years waiting for the books I really wanted to read to become available at a reasonable price. Now, thanks to the Kindle prices, I can buy them the day when they come out. And if you think I talk about the Kindle too much, wait until you get one, and then you'll understand.


Anonymous said...

Simon and Schuster is trying to end the practice of books coming to the Kindle as soon as they are released in hardcover:

I expect other publishers will follow suit.


Clarissa said...

God, what is the problem these jerks have????

I do not need these bad news on the last day of the semester, Mike.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with your comments' about Lauren Grodstein at all. How could she not be a strong writer if she's able to describe this character so well? In addition, your description of the book isn't even accurate...

Clarissa said...

It's not a 'description", it's a reading. And a reading cannot be 'accurate" or not. It's my own. You are welcome to suggest your reading.

I say the writer isn't strong because her narrative techniques are conventional and her language is uninspiring. Some fairly lengthy episodes seem extraneous to the plot. Some things are annoyingly sensationalist. The novel is very unoriginal in places.
Creating one good character is not enough to qualify as a strong writer from my point of view.

But I'm grateful for your comment because it always makes me happy to see comments to my reviews.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised you don't mention the character of Laura in your review. She is pretty central to the book.

Clarissa said...

I think she is a boring, one-dimensional character who has very little significance for the story. All she did was add a sensationalist aspect to the novel.

Anonymous said...

I'm beginning to doubt that you even read the book. Laura is the main cause of the conflict between father and son. None of this would have happened if it weren't for her. How can you say she had no significance to the story???