Lest you think I am unbiased (although I have no idea why you would think that…), I should say right away that Lauren Grodstein, author of the new novel A Friend of the Family, is one of my favorites. Favorite whats? Hmmm: Writers, Teachers, Motivators, Etc. She taught the Cooper Union writing workshop I took the year after I finished college when I was deciding that I actually wanted to go for it and be a writer, and then she taught the more informal (but infinitely more helpful) workshop that met around her dining room table. And then she moved on to head up the MFA program at Rutgers-Camden and passed me on to another great Brooklyn writer/teacher Julia Fierro of the Sackett Street Writer’s Workshop (a subject for another time). Before heading south to Jersey, though, Lauren dispensed this bit of terrifying wisdom, which I often repeat and rarely follow: “Sleep is nice, but getting published is better.”
Brutal, right? How do you argue with that? I think Lauren follows her own advice because A Friend of the Family is her third book–her first two are the short story collection The Best of Animals and the novel Reproduction is the Flaw of Love–and although I like to think that people who’ve accomplished this much are, like, at least twenty to a hundred years older than me, Lauren is certainly not. She’s young, driven, a new mommy and a fantastic writer.
But, is this post about Lauren or about the book? The novel is set in North Jersey, a terrain I know well, and centers around two families struggling to deal with suburban scandal. Pete Dizinoff is married to Eileen–they have a son, Alec–but Pete has never quite gotten over the wife, Iris, of his best friend, Joe Stern. I’m not giving much away when I say that the Stern family’s oldest daughter, when she is seventeen, has a baby in a library bathroom and kills it–a scenario you may remember from the nineties, when there were a rash of incidents like this one. This is the germ for all the action that follows, action that comes to a head when Laura returns to town, at the age of 30, and takes up with Pete’s son. Suffice to say for now that this is not the only scandal that befalls the two families.
Pete recounts his story in the first person, weaving between the ambiguous-until-the-end events of the present, the recent past and the more distant past. Information is revealed in a way that doesn’t seem teasing or withholding, and yet is incredibly suspenseful. The novel’s level of suspense makes it a very quick read–it is impossible not to think about it during time spent away from Pete’s unraveling world.
I am going to restrain myself and not give away anything else that happens in the book, except I will reveal this little confession. I was maybe not going to mention it, but here it goes–I totally shoplifted this book. At Lauren’s reading, I picked up a copy off the shelf to have her sign, had a nice chat, popped the novel in my purse and got on the train to go home. I didn’t realize until the next day when I was going over my budget for the week. Not my best move. So, hopefully I can make it up several-fold–you all go buy the book! And, enjoy!