Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ayelet Waldman tells a tale steeped in tragedy

I read a brief account of this novel, and I knew that I would like it. But I did not know that I would like it as well as I did.

Red Hook Road

Red Hook Road (352 pages, Doubleday, $25.95), the title of Ayelet Waldman's new novel, refers to a dangerous stretch of road in a beautiful coastal village in Maine. The story opens on a richly floral summer wedding in a white clapboard church with the ocean in the distance. The bride is stunningly tanned and sparkling in the devotion she feels to her beau of ten years. He is handsome and charismatic is his way, and everyone at the wedding admires this nearly flawless couple.

During the ceremony itself, we learn of a lot of tension between the two families. Becca, the bride, is the daughter of Iris and Daniel Copaken: she's a high-powered literary scholar and professor, and he's a feckless and under-achieving lawyer. They both love their daughter deeply. The groom's parents are divorced, but his mother, Jane Tetherly, is a local woman who cleans the houses of families like the Copakens, who leave Manhattan every summer to spend a few months in the glorious house they have there.

The bride and groom each have one younger sibling too: the groom John's younger is Matt, handsome and accomplished in his way, but nowhere near as charismatic as his older brother. Ruthie cannot hold a candle to Becca, the bride, even though she is a successful student of literature who seems to be following in her mother's footsteps.

Becca, it seems, had taken after her mother's father, a violin virtuoso who alone among his family escaped the Nazi extermination of the Jews in the 1930s and 1940s. Although by the time of the wedding she had given up music in order to work with her boyfriend on a charter boat business--John is rebuilding a schooner that will serve this purpose--Iris has never quite forgiven her daughter: she blames John for this change of heart and she deplores the marriage on these and other social grounds that she hardly dare articulate to herself.

When in the second chapter, then, everyone waiting for the bride and groom to arrive at the reception are greeted instead with the horrifying news that the couple has been killed, along with their driver, in a hideous crash on Red Hill Road.

The rest of the novel follows the remaining characters in summer after summer as they attempt to cope with this devastating loss. Waldman is wonderful in getting inside the grief of parents at a time like this. Iris, Daniel, and Jane all react so differently: Iris turns in on herself and re-analyzes every moment with her daughter; Daniel finds himself returning to the boxing ring of his youth and expressing his anger by bashing other men and being bashed by them; Jane simmers with vitriolic resentment, and she goes as far as blaming the Copakens for what happened to her son. Their grief drives all these characters apart until some fascinating events in the plot bring them back together, but there is nothing at all easy about the process of mourning that they all experience.

Mourning too and almost unacknowledged in the extent of their grief stand Matt and Ruthie. Pale imitations of their older siblings, the lives of these two characters seem to be falling apart--Matt drops out of Amherst, where he hoped to study oceanography; and Ruthie finds that her literary study ceases to have meaning for her. Matt's solution is to attempt to continue rebuilding the boat his brother was working on at his death. Ruthie tries to throw commemorative parties as a way of remembering the lost pair--the tragic wedding took place on the day after July 4, so Ruthie uses the traditional lobster bake and firework event, as strange as that sounds.

The novel weaves us in and out of these individual lives beautifully, and it also places these characters in fascinating relation to one another. The mourning itself--irrational, demanding, and debilitating--shapes the plot. The events that bring this process to a close are almost as arbitrary as the automobile accident that started it. Waldman pushes her characters almost to the end of sanity, I think, in order to give them no resort but turning to one another at the end.

This is a wonderful novel, and although it is painfully melancholy throughout, it also opens new vistas of hope and promise.

Ayelet Waldman

Get a copy of Red Hook Road at Vroman's, Powell's or Amazon.

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