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3.54  ·  Rating details ·  742 Ratings  ·  117 Reviews
Unabridged CDs • 12 CDs, 15 hours

A novel of scientific experimentation gone wrong and the consequences that haunt a family for a generation.
Audio CD, 15 pages
Published July 31st 2008 by Penguin Audio (first published July 1st 2008)
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Sep 11, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to K by: margueya, yitzchak
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 w
Aug 25, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A rich story of parents and children, and the question of why things happen as they do - the characters intertwined inextricably with man's apparently relentless quest to fix ourselves with chemicals.

William Friedrich’s family is relentlessly stalked by the not-so-friendly ghost of Casper, a psychotic young man that took part in a pharmaceutical study developed and conducted by Friedrich in the early 1950s, who subsequently kills Friedrich’s study partner and whose presence continue to haunt th
Aug 06, 2008 rated it liked it
Novels, or modern ones at least, are very often negative forms of self-help books. While self-help books promote means of finding happiness, novels more often than not show how choices lead to bad outcomes. The reader hopefully will take the lessons and adjust their lives accordingly. I think a very good novel will often lead a person to reevaluate choices and consider how they might treat others better.

In Dirk Wittenborn's Pharmakon, the questions of happiness and the treatment of others are fr
Oct 14, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Pharmakon is the fictional story of William Friedrich, a psychologist and early researcher in the field of psychopharmacology, and his family of psychos. I really enjoyed this book for many reasons. It's an interesting and engrossing story, and is quite well written... one of those books I really never wanted to put down each time I would start reading. It spans the period from the early 1950s trough the mid-1990s, so it coincides with my lifetime so far, or most of it, and so it contains a bunc ...more
Larry Buhl
This is really two books. The first is about a pharmacologist whose experiment results in the death of a fellow researcher at the hands of one of his subjects, and a constant menace to his family throughout the years. The second half is a coming of age story spanning the sixties, seventies, and eighties, with not much relationship to the first half except that the menacing character, Casper, is still in prison and has escaped once and might escape again. But there are long, long, long passages w ...more
Oct 23, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
So from this book I have learned a lot about myself, but mostly that my taste in books has changed. For that I have Margueya to thank. Thank you Marg ( no more sappy love story, friendship books for me). Bring on the heavy depressing stuff!
This book was super! It is well written, a fascinating story that keeps you thinking and engaged the whole time. He explores a lot of human psychology in a very real way throughout the story and with different characters. He gives the characters insight into
Asproreps Asprodites
In the sensibility of John Irving, this book develops a family whose dysfunction is one of the main characters. This is a beautifully written book with the story driven as much by the language as by the plot.
Jul 04, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 23, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I picked this book randomly at the bookstore. I really enjoyed it. It follows a family through the 50s, 60s and 70s who are connected to the pharmaceutical industry and experience a serious tragedy. I was sorry to see it end. I found the entire family interesting.
Jul 05, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is actually two books, roughly divided between its first and second halves, and, unfortunately, the first one is a lot better than the second. It opens as if it's the (fictional) autobiography of one character, but quickly shifts into the biography of that character's father. This story is interesting. It tells the mostly linear story of psychologist William Friedrich and his pursuit of a potentially groundbreaking pharmacological discovery. The story propels forward with narrative mom ...more
Mar 07, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
As a young, poor, ambitious psychologist at Yale, Dr. Will Friedrich wanted to make a name for himself. Dr. Bunny Winton and Will happened upon an herb that had the potential to help people feel happy. It was the early days of drug testing; they performed an early experiment on rats (and Dr. Winton experimented on herself and Will) before moving to a trial. One person getting the drug and not the placebo was student genius Casper Gedsic who had tried to commit suicide. The trial ended w/ tragic ...more
Vince Darcangelo

This review originally appeared in the ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS

By Vince Darcangelo, Special to the Rocky

Published August 14, 2008 at 7 p.m.

* Fiction. By Dirk Wittenborn. Viking, $25.95. Grade: B-

Book in a nutshell: Wittenborn has mostly found success in moving pictures. Two of his screenplays, Fierce People and The Lucky Ones, have made it to the big screen. (The latter, about three Iraq war veterans returning home, starring Tim Robbins, hits theate
Sep 14, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan 03, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a book I want to give more stars to, because the beginning and middle are so great, but the final section reads more as a straight forward 60s semi-autobiographical narrative, and thus doesn't really fit the vivid fiction of the beginning of the book. The book basically tells the (fictional) story of a young research psychologist at Yale in the 1950s desperate to prove himself in the competitive upper class setting. He stumbles upon a unique psychoactive compound with the help of a trail ...more
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Paul Pessolano
If you are looking for a very unusual book, and one that will be quite different from anything you have read before, this may be just the book for you.

I will tell you that I found myself becoming completely immersed in the book and totally involved with the lives of the people in the book.

The book revolves around the William Friedreich family. William is a professor of psychology at Yale in the 1950's. He and a colleague, Buddy Winton, are experimenting on a drug found in New Guinea that seems t
Sarah Sammis
The cover of an epic often depicts the founding member of the new dynasty. Pharmakon by Dirk Wittenborn isn't an epic but it draws on some of the conventions. With that in mind, the cover shows Gray, an African Gray parrot whose unexpected appearance in the mulberry tree at the Friedrich household sets in motion a number of events that will forever change the family.

Of course the parrot isn't the family patriarch. That honor falls to William Friedrich, a psychologist who for personal reasons wor
Nov 30, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A solid four stars - even bordering on four and a half. Thank you, Sarah, for introducing me to this book - it was so incredibly insightful, readable, at times touchingly funny and achingly real while being totally wacko.
This is a layered narrative surrounding one man's effective ruining of a family, yet the man himself is really a catalyst, for in some ways the father was successfully doing this by himself. In essence, Will Friedrich is a psychiatrist on the verge of discovering a powerful anti
Elizabeth Moeller
I am not sure why, but for some reason I wasn't expecting very much from this book. Maybe it is because so many of the books I have read lately seemed promising and then were just too predictable and/or uninteresting. In any case, I thought this book was fantastic. It follows a family, headed by a psychiatrist from the 1950s through to the late nineties-ish. Through the father's profession as a psychiatrist the author has made a really fascinating exploration of the role that chemicals and drugs ...more
Sep 07, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anybody over 30
Recommended to Liz by: Ray
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jul 31, 2013 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
The hook to this novel piques one's interest for the first hundred pages, presenting itself as a historical psychological thriller. Once Wittenborn baits the reader to commit, he switches the entire premise of the story to an underdeveloped and cliched coming-of-age story that skips the maturation of the main character. The voice skips through time and perspective without purpose. The author's lazy writing repeats unnecessary phrases and omits large chunks of narrative as though he cobbled toget ...more
Dec 28, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not bad though a bit treacly and a bit lite overall. Tellingly, this is the sort of author that rather than writing "He was old," writes: "He was old." With "was" in italics. In other words, telling rather than showing, oftentimes. The plot is a basic potboiler - in the vein of "Night of the Hunter" but without the overarching menace that one conjures. Ultimately, though it is a good memoir of 1950s academic striving and the impecunious life of the non-gentry faculty family. I preferred it to ot ...more
Sep 13, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this book, though while you read it you may see flaws. (Actually, I'm sometimes I'm bothered by an overly smooth, flawless book!) I liked the themes explored, mental health, happiness, family life, love, marriage, family dynamics, and the question of how much we can really truly know or help other individuals. The "villain" in the book, if you can call him that, seemed exaggerated and a bit unbelievable to me (particularly as the story progresses - I would like to know what a ps ...more
Marie Siller
Jun 11, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
It was a decent book that was a little confusing. I didn't really like the jump from generations that made it feel like two separate books. I like the part from Will's perspective much more than the other parts. It really started out as a really promising book with honest storytelling and a great portrayal of Casper's mental illness. Casper really was an amazing character and probably redeemed the mediocre second part of the book. His evolution was so weird and you knew that something was going ...more
Dec 15, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed this book, but as many reviewers have noted - it just seems to end, without tying up many loose ends. We are to assume that the book itself is written by the youngest son Zach - based on the prologue. But what is up with the unexplained "Sock Moments"? This seemed to be something I thought was going to be explained in further detail but it never was. Also, I thought Casper would return - he didn't. I get the "haunting" of Casper, which is rather clever because he is the "ghost" of a fa ...more
May 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved, loved, loved this book!! Wow--what can I say!! This novel portrayed a look at a family in the 1950s whose father was into psychopharmacology. He was involved in an experiment with a fellow female researcher when a test subject went off the deep end and it lead to a catastrophic event. The father never really recovered; this taints everything he does from here on out. Reading this book, just when you think you are into a groove, you get jolted out of your seat due to a cataclysmic turn a ...more
Kevin Tole
On finishing reading this I had one of those "well so what" moments about this book. It's intense introversion on 'the family' seems to be a bit of an American contemporary writing fixation at present with Franzen giving it a bash as well at the moment. I just felt that it really didn't know what it wanted to be this book. The psych-pharmacology bit at the beginnig is really just a hook to hang his exposition of 'fucked up family' on. Which is OK as a vehicle but I was hoping to see more of an e ...more
James Barker
I have read really critical reviews of this novel and understand that people lose interest at the halfway mark, thinking the story arc is done and it is like starting a brand new book. There was certainly a moment where that happened to me.. but persevere and there is a wonderful story here, one all about happiness and the desperate, impossible pursuit of it after tragedy falls. Wittenborn treads similar ground at times to that covered in his novel, 'Fierce People.. it's certainly easy to see cr ...more
Oct 10, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Pharmakon is a fascinating look at the beginnings of America's huge dependence on mood aids as well as the inner workings of early drug trials. Each of the family members was unique in their own way and very well developed. I agree with other readers that the first half of the book seemed to have a better story plot.

At first the ending was unsatisfying for me, but then as I sat and thought back on the book I found it sadly ironic that Will Friedrich spent his life trying to develop the perfect p
Jun 01, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I may have a bit of a problem with endings. I loved this book so much, but near the end its appeal started to wane, and on the last page I found myself thinking "Are you kidding? That's it?" We are privy to the inner workings of several characters who are then made secondary, or jettisoned altogether, which to me is very dissatisfying. I think it has to do with timing - more years are covered in fewer pages as the characters age. I suppose we are left with a portrait that shows the culmination o ...more
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Pharmakon 1 20 Aug 30, 2008 05:19AM  
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DIRK WITTENBORN is a novelist (Fierce People, Pharmakon), screenwriter and the Emmy-nominated producer of the HBO documentary, Born Rich. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter and summers on the wrong side of the tracks in East Hampton, NY.
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“Happiness is the exception-joy a rarity-the normal feeling most human beings have is discontent or longing... maybe there's an evolutionary purpose.” 4 likes
“the future doesn't care what you wish.” 3 likes
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