Red Hook Road
Doubleday (2010), Hardcover (ISBN 0385517866 / 9780385517867)
Fiction, 352 pages
Source: ARC (Advance Reader’s Copy) provided by the publisher – pub date June 2010
Reason for reading: review, a favorite author
Opening Lines: “The flower girl had lost her basket of rose petals and could not bear to have the photograph taken without it. Altogether she had been somewhat of a disappointment in her role. She had forgotten to sprinkle the petals as she walked down the aisle of the church, remembering only once she reached the front pew. Perhaps she had been distracted by the transformation of the nave, the oiled and gleaming oak pews, the glass wall sconces sparkling, their long tapered candles lit for the first time in years, all the shutters on the windows flung open, letting in the light of the golden afternoon. And, everywhere, flowers.”
A marriage collapses under the strain of a daughter’s death; two bereaved siblings find comfort in one another; and an adopted young girl breathes new life into her family with her prodigious talent for the violin. As she writes with obvious affection for these unforgettable characters, Ayelet Waldman skillfully interweaves life’s finer pleasures—music and literature—with the more mundane joys of living. Within these resonant pages, a vase filled with wildflowers or a cold beer on a hot summer day serve as constant reminders that it’s often the little things that make life so precious.
Comments: With the opening lines quoted above, Ayelet Waldman immediately places the reader into a familiar scene: a wedding ceremony is winding down outside a church. The families are lining up for formal portraits before leaving for the reception dinner, and the photographer senses the tensions that underlie the festivities. This observer is documenting what he sees, and foreshadowing what the reader is about to see.
Red Hook Road follows the families of the bride and groom, the Copakens and the Tetherlys, through the four summers following that wedding. The Copakens are “summer people” in the Maine village of Red Hook, but wife Iris’ family has a long history in the community; however, the fact that they reside for the rest of the year in New York means that Jane Tetherly will always see them as being “from away.” While their respective children, Becca and John, have been together since their teens, neither mother is altogther happy about the marriage that will bring their families together. And when the families are shockingly torn apart, the mothers react differently – Jane with New England stoicism, Iris with more conflicted emotions and behaviors. The mothers are not the only ones affected, of course – Becca’s sister Ruthie and John’s brother Matt find themselves drawn to one another as they individually sort through the aftermath.
The observer’s perspective employed via the photographer in the opening pages of the novel really never fades; Waldman seems to maintain a slight distance from her characters through much of the novel, which makes the times when she drops it all the more affecting. She spends more time with Iris and Ruthie than with other characters, but as the narrative viewpoints change, the reader get the opportunity to construct fuller pictures of these people – or some of them, anyway. Jane isn’t as fully developed, but as a woman who focuses on doing rather than thinking, she comes across as someone who would keep her inner life to herself; in that context, it seems appropriate that she’s at a bit of a remove. I found Iris’ father, ninety-year-old semi-retired violinist Emil Kimmelbrod, a particularly enigmatic and interesting character, and he was one to keep himself to himself even more than Jane.
There are stretches in the novel where it seems that not much happens, as Waldman explores these complex characters’ responses over time, effectively conveying that there’s no prescribed method or schedule for “getting over” something, and that what may seem like letting go at first may really be a way of holding on. There are also scenes that are written so vividly – almost cinematically – that I felt I was watching them play out. I rarely hope a book will be made into a movie, but in this case I wouldn’t mind it; however, I have a bad feeling the focus of the story would shift more heavily to Ruthie and Matt. Aside from certain prominent exceptions, it’s still tough for women over 40 to get good roles in which they can act their ages.
Waldman’s writing doesn’t call attention to itself as she follows these characters on their journey, but it rarely hits a wrong note. For much of the telling, Red Hook Road is a quiet novel, and its emotional impact snuck up on me a bit. I don’t mind when that happens. This didn’t quite resonate the same way for me as Waldman’s previous novel, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, did, and it’s very different from her last book – Bad Mother, my Nonfiction Book of the Year in 2009, but it’s a moving and thoughtful work of fiction that I think will stick with me for a while.