—Helen Schulman, author of A Day at the Beach
A Friend of the Familyby Lauren Grodstein
Pete Dizinoff, a skilled and successful New Jersey internist, has a loving and devoted wife, a network of close friends, an impressive house, and, most of all, a son, Alec, now nineteen, on whom he has pinned all his hopes. But Pete hadn’t expected his best friend’s troubled daughter to set her sights on his boy. When Alec falls under her spell, Pete… See more details below
Pete Dizinoff, a skilled and successful New Jersey internist, has a loving and devoted wife, a network of close friends, an impressive house, and, most of all, a son, Alec, now nineteen, on whom he has pinned all his hopes. But Pete hadn’t expected his best friend’s troubled daughter to set her sights on his boy. When Alec falls under her spell, Pete sets out to derail the romance, never foreseeing the devastating consequences.
In a riveting story of suburban tragedy, Lauren Grodstein charts a father’s fall from grace as he struggles to save his family, his reputation, and himself.
—Helen Schulman, author of A Day at the Beach
—Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize winner for Olive Kitteridge
The Washington Post
“An astute dissector of male aspiration, Grodstein brings great insight into a father’s protective urge for his son in this gripping portrait of an American family in crisis.”
Publishers Weekly [Starred Review]
“What a wonderful and compelling read. This book is full of insights and honesty, you will have a hard time putting it down. These people will stay in your head, and keep their hands on your heart. Grodstein’s skills at story telling are unwavering.”
Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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- 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Read an Excerpt
A FRIEND OF THE FAMILYa novel
By LAUREN GRODSTEIN
Algonquin Books of Chapel HillCopyright © 2009 Lauren Grodstein
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThese 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." And this is true. I am fed, I am clothed, I still have a few patients, the Nets are winning, and my mother, thank God, has finally agreed to the assisted-living place in Rockland. And I have a home, of sorts-the room we built for Alec above the garage so that he could pursue his oil painting with the firm scaffold of our love and money under his feet. God forbid that Alec should ever have felt unsupported-that we should show dismay at his dropping out of Hampshire after three semesters and almost sixty thousand dollars of tuition, books, board, and other proofs of parental esteem. Sixty thousand dollars vanished-puff-like smoke; our son fails out of a college that doesn't even give grades, and in response we build him an art studio above our garage. And here's the kicker: we were happy to do it. This was one of many lessons we took from the plight of our friends Joe and Iris Stern, whose daughter Laura was lost to them once, and is again, now.
My new home, the studio, is floored in gray, paint-speckled linoleum. Alec's old drawing table sits in the corner, next to a double-sized futon buriedunder a pile of airplane blankets. On the opposite wall rests a slightly corny oak dresser covered in scrollwork and brass, which Elaine's parents gave us for our wedding and we dutifully kept in our bedroom for twenty-plus years. An armchair from the same era. By the armchair there's a stack of books, some Alec's, some mine: Bukowski and Burroughs, a small selection of graphic novels, and thrillers I no longer have the taste for.
I read in this studio. I sleep. Sometimes, on weekends or late into the evening, I listen to the Kriegers fighting next door. Our garage is situated along the property line; the Kriegers recently finished an addition, and now, without even trying, I can peer right into their granite-and-stainless kitchen and watch them go at it. Jill Krieger is a harridan, it turns out, and Mark likes to throw things. I wonder when this started. Elaine and I always liked them, always thought they had a very nice marriage, nice young kids; sure, their addition took forever, but at least they had the courtesy to keep the exterior tasteful. I wonder if Elaine can hear them. She and I never fought, you know, never like that.
If people keep asking me, look deep into my eyes to see if there are any secrets left in my stubbly soul, I tell them, "Listen, life goes on." And I'm not just feeding them formula, pap. Life really does go on. That's what I've learned. It goes. You'd be surprised.
But there have been moments. Today, for example: A Saturday, too warm for April, I eat lunch with my mother in Yonkers and stay in her asbestos-ceilinged apartment for as long as she'll let me. We have egg salad, watch Law and Order, four in a row, until finally it's time for her nap-Peter, she says to me, her breath heavy with mayo, I love you, but if you don't leave soon I'll have a fit. So I leave, although it takes another two slices of coffee cake; I kiss her on her soft cheek, get into the rusty white Escort I'm driving these days, cross the Tappan Zee, and drive slowly south along the Hudson toward the Palisades. Last month I discovered this small park down there, a little paved area jutting into the river, where a few fishermen and lost sailors were gathered to catch toxic bluefish and use the dented Portosans.
It's three o'clock when I park, and muggy. I take a spot on a peeling bench, roll up my sleeves. The new-money types eat sandwiches on their decks, and the immigrant fishermen fill up buckets with poisoned blues. I watch them, and the minutes turn into an hour and a half. I've become so good, these days, at just sitting. The city hums across the water, Harlem, Washington Heights. Light filters underneath the George Washington Bridge. I study the pools of oil on the surface of the Hudson and smell the dying fish.
I've always liked being near water, although I've never been especially handy around it; I don't boat, I don't fish, and when I used to frequent the JCC, I'd find myself on the basketball courts twelve times as often as in the pool. But still: a decade and a half ago, we took regular vacations to the beach, we and the Sterns, down to Delaware because the area seemed a little more wholesome than the Jersey shore, or maybe just farther away. Every morning the kids would pick the perfect sandy spot twenty feet from the Atlantic, and we'd spend two weeks freckling ourselves under the August glare, then eating dinner at crab barns out on Route 1, platters of steamed Maryland blues. The Stern children (first two, then three, then four of them, redheads like Iris, her fecundity a marvel) sucking on crab legs with joy, my own persnickety son daintily peeling a shrimp because he didn't like food with claws. Neal Stern, seven months younger than Alec, shoving a crab carapace in his face. Iris Stern wiping Old Bay seasoning off each long finger.
It was a summer ritual for years until Laura Stern, their oldest, started high school and had no more patience for family vacations and five-hour late-summer drives. The same house every time: a ramshackle clapboard on Brooklyn Avenue, a washing machine but no dryer, a dishwasher that was constantly humming, three blocks from the main drag, a block from the beach. Nautical gewgaws in the bathrooms, sand and salt everywhere. The kids ran around half-naked all day while Elaine stayed demure in her black terry cloth cover-up and Iris gallivanted in a white bikini that Joe teased her about when he thought nobody was listening. "Would that thing turn see-through if I got you wet?" I did my best not to listen.
I liked to spend time by myself at the water's edge even then, watch the old-timers scoop up clams an hour before evening's low tide. Kids would skate around their grandfathers' knees, duck down with their plastic sieves to shovel up empty handfuls of sand, while the old men would carefully tread over the same patches of clamming ground. I'd daydream about getting a clam and crab license, giving up my practice, moving the family down to a rickety house by the Delaware shore, where it was always warm and sunset and Iris Stern was always making coffee in the kitchen in her white bikini and my son would laugh and run around for days at a time. Then the tide would sink and I'd go back to the house, take a shower, remember who I was and where I came from. An internist in New Jersey, educated on scholarships, raised in Yonkers, married more than a decade. Husband, father, basketball enthusiast.
I was never as grateful as I should have been for everything I had.
Here on my bench beneath the Palisades, the mosquitoes start to come in, and the fishermen start to pack up. I watch a red and white cigarette boat circle the park slowly, wag itself back and forth, causing waves to ripple up against the log pilings that defend the park from the grime of the Hudson. There's a young man behind the wheel all by himself, and it strikes me as unusual to see just one guy in a sport boat on a Saturday. He steers with a single hand and drinks a beer. He needs a crew of semiclad blonds around him, I decide. He needs a blasting stereo.
Across the river, the sun angles down behind Riverside Church, making the building glow.
"You know that kid in the boat?" the last remaining fisherman says to me after the cigarette boat makes another slow turn around the pilings.
The fisherman shrugs. "He looks like he knows you."
I give him a quizzical look.
"The way he's circling," the man says, rubbing his chin with a fishy old hand.
"Nobody knows me," I say, grand and melodramatic. This, by the way, isn't exactly true, but it is how I would prefer things.
The cigarette boat circles again, slowly, and then once more.
Nineteen ninety-one, August, the summer of the Russian coup and the end of the Soviet Union, Joe Stern left the beach house early and came back with a bag of boardwalk cinnamon rolls and six newspapers: the Times, the Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, both the Rehoboth and Wilmington dailies. Wake up the kids, he said to me. It was maybe eight in the morning; back then, all five of the kids and also my wife used to sleep till at least half past nine. Iris tended to get up at six to jog.
"It's their vacation," I said. "They'll wake up on their own."
"History, Pete," my old chum, college lab partner, best friend, said, spreading the different front pages across the picnic table on the deck. "The coup failed. It's the collapse of the Soviet Union. The cold war is over."
Above me, I remember, seagulls circled and cawed, putting me in mind of vultures, although really they were just after dropped bits of cinnamon roll. "If the cold war is over," I said, "which I happen to doubt, then it will still be over when the kids wake up."
"You doubt it?"
"All the news that's fit to print, my friend," Joe said, smacking the front page of the Times.
I picked up the Sun and read a few sentences under the screeching headline, but nothing to convince me that it was time to salute a new world order. "It'll take more than this to end the cold war. We're in Delaware. History doesn't happen while we're vacationing in Delaware."
"Who cares where we are?" Joe said. He laughed, rubbed his hand over his bald spot, his gesture when he was nervous, happy, or amused. "What does that have to do with the news?"
A change in the way things have always been, and I'm reading the Baltimore paper? "I just think, I think it'll be louder when the cold war is over. We'll all hear it."
"You can't hear it?"
I grew up crouching under desks at PS 145 and knew that if the Soviet Union was really going to collapse, it would be a slow-motion, lumbering thing, the felling of a grand oak, bringing down everything in its path. It wouldn't be a failed coup launched by a bunch of grumpy, bald dodderers while I sat on a deck in Delaware. I put down the Sun, picked up the Philadelphia Inquirer-the same information, the same tone. "They just want to sell papers," I said. "There was a coup. It didn't work. This isn't the end of the cold war."
"Not everything is propaganda, Pete."
"Look," I said, "you can dismiss me if you'd like, but you've got to admit that something as enormous and ... and indestructible ... and evil -"
"Evil?" Joe chuckled. "You sound like Reagan. The Baltic States already split months ago. The Soviet Union is done." Joe rubbed again at his bald spot, said laconically, "We're number one."
"I don't believe it."
"Pete," Joe said, "get with the program."
I couldn't have told even Joe, and wouldn't have tried, but I remember feeling a chill at that moment, looking over the papers, the pictures of the different Soviet conspirators lined up like mug shots on the various front pages. I wiped my hands on my knees, stepped off the back deck, gazed up at the seagulls, still circling. There had never not been the Soviet Union in my life. There had never not been this particular enemy. I remember feeling bizarrely afraid. I walked out to the back fence of the weed-pocked yard in Delaware and looked out at the backs of all the other houses, still sleeping. I thought about everything I couldn't keep safe, or even keep the same.
"So what do you think of this, Pete?" my wife asked me when she had finally absorbed the papers. I poured us some coffee from the thermos on the table. She was looking at me with a flatteringly grave expression, as though I were holding the world's only crystal ball.
"If it's true," I said, "if it's happening the way they say, then I think it's very dangerous."
"The cold war was stasis, Elaine. Us versus them, good versus bad. Instability, especially in that part of the world, is dangerous. This makes me concerned. Not panicked, but concerned."
She nodded, turned back to the paper. "I see your point."
"Again, not panicked."
"No," she said. "Of course not."
Usually I liked responsibility: my wife generally trusted my judgment on matters of international consequence the same way she trusted me with the paying of bills, the hiring of plumbers. I think it's because I always spoke with authority and because I always had a clear sense of what was right and what was wrong. Elaine used to appreciate that about me. Until my recent troubles, I'd always had a pretty good idea of what good would come of things, and what bad, and I knew how to prepare.
"Well," Elaine said. "Well, I guess I won't worry too much either, then." And then she squeezed my hand.
A few minutes later, Iris emerged from the kitchen, her two younger children filing behind her like ducklings, the baby, Pauline, in her arms. "It looks crappy out today," she said. "Maybe we should rent some movies?"
"Movies!" seconded Adam, her younger son. There was a rental place right near the boardwalk, stocked with lots of fare for children and a surprisingly comprehensive adult section behind a black curtain, which Elaine and I had checked out the previous summer, feeling giddy and brave.
"Pete says instability in Russia is dangerous." Elaine folded her newspaper. "I guess we could go get a movie."
"Well, of course that's what Pete says." Iris grinned as Neal, her older boy, gave me a shrewd look. "Pete likes things the way they've always been."
"Not really," I said. "I'm just not sure that a haphazard breakup of the Soviet Union is necessarily in our strategic interests."
Iris laughed her heavy, infuriating laugh, and her kids started pulling through the mess of papers on the picnic table to find the comics. She let Pauline out of her arms, and the little girl skittered back into the house. "Strategic interests, Pete?"
"What's the matter with that?"
"This is good news," she said.
"We don't know what kind of news it is," I said.
"It's a relaxing day, we're on vacation, our kids are happy, the world turns out to be an interesting place." She was in her bikini, one of Joe's flannel shirts on top as a nod to the darkening weather. Her red hair was pulled up in a clip on top of her head, and she'd suspended sunglasses in the cleft of her bikini.
"Pete usually knows which way the wind blows," my wife said, and I loved her for it.
"Remember our sophomore year?" Iris asked. "He didn't want to go down to DC to protest because he was afraid it would reflect badly on his medical school apps?"
"What does that have to do with anything?" I said. "Anyway, I had to study."
"I know you did, sweetheart," Iris said. She tousled my hair-unlike her husband, I still had a thick head of it-then plopped herself at the picnic table next to me. "I'm just teasing."
She laughed again. I wondered if Iris teased me because she knew I'd never really hold it against her. She folded a paper hat out of newspaper for Neal. Elaine gave me a smile over her paper, and Adam stole Neal's hat, and the seagulls, which had subsided, began to caw again. I knew my face was red-I was never very good at being teased-so I dug up the sports page, checked on the Yankees, since my Nets had yet to start their season. Eventually, Elaine got up to pour more coffee, and Joe brought out a fresh plate of cinnamon rolls, and Alec woke up and shuffled onto the porch to see if I wanted to go to the driving range, which I did. The rest of that day's schedule is lost to me. I'm certain that by dinner we were talking about other things besides the Soviet Union.
And that was 1991. A long time ago.
But I ask you today, have events not borne me out? Rogue nuclear weapons, a breakdown in command of the Russian army, a frightening centralization in the world oil market? An autocratic KGB man at the country's head? Rising AIDS rates, a widening wealth gap, the largest land mass on the planet-I ask you, Iris, have events not borne me out? Is it so hard to imagine that I might have been right?
At night, in that beach house, Iris and Joe slept in the bedroom on the second floor, and Elaine and I slept one floor down from them, and we could hear them together, always past midnight, although we tried not to. We heard them almost every night, and rolled our eyes at each other, and usually woke up in unrumpled sheets ourselves.
Excerpted from A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY by LAUREN GRODSTEIN Copyright © 2009 by Lauren Grodstein. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
LAUREN GRODSTEIN is the author of four previous works of fiction, including the New York Times bestselling novel A Friend of the Family, which was a Washington Post Best Book Pick, a New York Times Editor’s Pick, a BookPage Best Book, and an Indie Next Pick. She teaches creative writing at Rutgers University. Her website is www.laurengrodstein.com.
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