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The Altruists

Arthur Alter, a 65-year-old professor of engineering at a St. Louis university, has spent much of his life motivated by self-interest. He moved his family from Boston to take the teaching job, which meant that his wife, Francine, had to restart her career as a couples and family therapist. While she was dying of cancer, Arthur cheated on her with a colleague, the much younger Ulrike, whom he is now trying to dissuade from taking a teaching post out of town. To entice Ulrike to stay, Arthur is offering cohabitation in his suburban home, but he's having a hard time covering the mortgage with the paltry income from his "tenure-allergic professorship." Arthur has a plan: he will get his two adult children, whom he hasn't seen since Francine's funeral nearly two years earlier, to visit him in St. Louis over spring break and convince them to give him some of the cash they inherited from their mom.

Andrew Ridker's ingenious plot sounds ripe for giddy-making farce, and The Altruists is indeed funny as hell (e.g., "Fatherhood was a creepy, ill-fitting look on Arthur, like a cape or a Speedo"). But the book belongs to the tradition of trenchant atomizations of the modern American family--the territory of Jonathan Franzen and Stuart Nadler, and Ridker is just as good. As points of view shift in time among Arthur, Francine and their kids, they take turns circling one another like vultures hungry for, in equal measure, answers and affirmation. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer