Down East 2013 ©
On the fifth of July in the fictional Maine coastal village of Red Hook, two families are celebrating a wedding. The groom is a local boy, a boatbuilder; the bride’s family are summer people from New York City with ancestral roots in the village. The wedding is a joyous occasion that will not only unite the young lovers but cement the two families — the Down East, working class Tetherlys and the urban, professional Copakens. But before we are even four pages into the short prologue of Ayelet Waldman’s poignant novel, Red Hook Road (Doubleday, New York, New York; hardcover; 352 pages; $25.95), it is clear that this wedding day is going to end in tragedy.
Having given the reader advanced warning, Waldman spends a chapter deftly and patiently describing the mundane interactions and sometimes conflicted emotions of the wedding guests who, unlike the reader, are unaware that something terrible is about to happen. Once that event occurs, the novel becomes a story of how the characters cope with their grief.
The focus of the novel is on the two families, opposite in every possible way, yet brought together through the relationship of their children. The mothers, Jane Tetherly and Iris Copaken, are wonderfully and faithfully drawn. Jane, laconic, practical, hardworking, and tough as nails, might seem to be a stereotypical Maine character, but Waldman is too accomplished a writer to allow herself to devolve into cliché. Similarly, Iris — bossy, emotional, Jewish, and a university professor — might also seem to be a familiar type, but she, too, comes alive as a unique and totally believable individual. The various interactions between these two powerful women over the four summers during which the story unfolds are the most engaging in the novel. Besides Iris, the Copaken family includes Rebecca, the bride; Iris’ father, Emil Kimmelbrod, a world-famous violinist; her husband, Daniel, a lawyer and boxer; and her younger daughter, Ruth. Maine resident Jane is divorced, and, besides John (the groom), has a younger son, Matt, and a married daughter, Maureen. She is also caring for Samantha, a Cambodian child Jane’s sister adopted before she became mentally ill.
Over the course of four summers, all these characters will try to make peace with their new reality, with the world as it now exists for them, and will try, in various ways, to restore and re-create what has been lost. Some old relationships will not survive the stress put on them, while some new relationships will begin under the shadow of the tragedy. Somewhat predictably, Matt and Ruth will begin a relationship while Iris and Daniel’s marriage falters. Daniel will take up boxing again, the sport of his youth; Matt will work on finishing the restoration of his brother’s 1938 Alden schooner though he isn’t himself a sailor and has no idea what he’ll do with her when he is done. Charting the choices and decisions these characters make, Waldman is highly sensitive to the various guises in which grief plays itself out.
Yet this is by no means a depressing novel. It is a novel about surviving, emphasized by the presence of Iris’ father, whose family died in the Holocaust, and Samantha, whose Cambodian family also suffered through a genocide. Mr. Kimmelbrod has survived by making music, and teaching it. Samantha, a musical prodigy, will be instrumental in bringing the two sharply different families together. The other characters will find their own methods of mourning and resolving their grief. The final section of the novel, Coda, returns us to the wedding scene, cut short in the Prologue, and to a conclusion that is very nearly transcendent.
Ayelet Waldman, the author of several previous novels and the well-known Mommy-Track mysteries, as well as Bad Mother, a book of essays, clearly knows a great deal about families and the relationships between parents and children. In Red Hook Road, she has created a moving story about two very different families dealing in their own ways with the worst possible tragedy any family can experience. That people are capable of suffering through intolerable grief to reach a point where they can re-embrace their lives, without ever relinquishing their memories of what has been lost, is the message of this wise and beautifully written book.