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Pharmakon, Or The Story Of A Happy Family: A Novel (2009)

Pharmakon, or The Story of a Happy Family: A Novel (2009)

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3.5 of 5 Votes: 5
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0143115677 (ISBN13: 9780143115670)
Penguin Books

About book Pharmakon, Or The Story Of A Happy Family: A Novel (2009)

I'd read Wittenborn's Fierce People in 2000 or 2001, don't remember when, and enjoyed it, so I was intrigued by the jacket flap description when I came across Pharmakon in the library. The plot piqued my curiosity early on, though probably not for the reasons Wittenborn intended. I was far more intrigued by the assumptions and endeavors of the 1950s psychology scene than I was by the Friedrich family (though, to be fair, I became interested in them after Part II), and I would have liked the Bunny Winton and Will Friedrich characters to have been more multidimensional. They were ambitious, yes, and they hung their hats on a single idea. But aside from the occasional mention of the Friedrich rating scale, their professional lives at Yale are entirely ignored. Beyond knowing that Bunny was wealthy and female, and willing to experiment on herself, we are left in the dark. Her death throws a wrench in the works, but it doesn't leave you with any sense of loss; that seems a loss in and of itself, to lose a character without any lingering feeling. The focus of their work, Bunny and Will's, is obviously connected to the rest of the plot, and yet the very fact of their work - the then-new notion that a pill could relieve depression or PTSD or any number of mental health issues - is glossed over so that Wittenborn can focus on the next generation. Zach, the last born, has no real depth at all. He is the voice-over of a movie, nostalgically reminiscent of a time he didn't know, but I have zero ability to "see" him in my mind's eye. He seemed an afterthought as a character, an answer to "what do I do with Will after Casper kills Bunny and Jack?", and a not very in-depth afterthought. I put this book down having been carried along by the sheer force of the plot, but I didn't feel I had gotten to know any one character particularly well. That may have been the point with Will, the simple unknowability factor, but it wasn't so for the others. I liked it while I read it but am unlikely to return to it, physically or mentally, at any point soon. This book was divided into four parts, and it basically felt like two different novels to me: part one, and parts two through four. I really liked part one, but part two slowly went downhill and by the time I reached part four, I had mostly lost interest. I'm giving it three stars overall, though, because the writing was good and I liked the premise.Part I of Pharmakon was the story of Will Friedrich, a 1950s psychologist who thinks he may have stumbled on a powerful antidepressant. Partnering with psychiatrist Bunny Winton, he tests the substance and finds it dramatically effective in reducing depression and improving functioning -- until one of his research subjects, Casper, has a psychotic break and goes on a murder rampage. That day, Friedrich's youngest son dies under mysterious circumstances and the family subsequently lives in the shadow of his death and the possibility that Casper was the killer, and that he may return to do more damage. Part I is fast-paced and interesting, exploring complex relationship dynamics as well as those of a psychologist who is by no means immune to personality difficulties of his own. Part II was where the story started to slowly fall apart for me. Narrated by Zach, the child born to the Friedrichs after their son's death, it read less like a novel and more like a standard dysfunctional-family-and-drug-abuse memoir, a possible prequel to “A Million Little Pieces” but less interesting, perhaps because it was a memoir-pretending-to-be-a-novel as opposed to a novel-pretending-to-be-a-memoir. It's the story of how Zach, who never manages to feel comfortable in his own skin, gradually becomes a serious substance abuser although he manages to snag a few surprising accomplishments along the way. Zach's decline appears to be connected to his father's excessively psychologically-minded childraising tactics as well as to the destructive events surrounding the family, but this is largely told to us rather than shown. There were many good things about the concept of this book -- its clever title ("pharmakon" means both "poison" and "cure") really says it all, as it explores the various ways in which we try, and fail, to capture happiness (legal drugs, illegal drugs, psychotherapy, achievement, upward mobility, finding just the right suburban house, trying and failing to fit in socially, etc.). As the title suggests, our misguided attempts at seeking happiness often prove to be our undoing -- at least, that's what happens to many of the characters. It's an interesting idea to explore. Had Wittenborn extended part one and tightened, or even eliminated, parts two through four, it would have come closer to reaching its potential.

Do You like book Pharmakon, Or The Story Of A Happy Family: A Novel (2009)?

Yale professor blah blah blah.... enjoyable read while in my car.It was quite good.

Petered out a bit at the end, but nice character development.

touching and funny..I enjoyed this novel a great deal.

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