Saturday, September 25, 2010

Red Hook Road - Yet Another Country

Reading around the world happened to take me to Maine last week where I followed novelist and essayist Ayelet Waldman. Waldman has interested me for a very long time and I believe that in previous posts, perhaps while discussing her last novel, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, I linked to the essay that brought her so much attention, the one in which, honest to a fault, she discussed having had an abortion and, though the loving mother of four children, commented that her love for her husband came first. Whoa - anathema to some, this apparently shocked the "civilized" world. But I remember hoping that my parents cared more about each other than they did about me.

Waldman's latest novel, Red Hook Road, seems much more mature and, in fact, she took some real chances with it in terms of her trust in her readers. I'll admit that it took me about 100 pages before I appreciated how cleverly she was unveiling the truths of her story. This is not a spoiler. Ms. Waldman kills John and Becca Tetherly not even an hour after their wedding and in the first chapter. The risk was that herreaders wouldn't care, because frankly, we had yet to get to know the young couple.

The joy is that Ms. Waldman spends the rest of her time with us carefully peeling back the skins of the families, compared in reviews to the Montagues and Capulets, allowing us to learn and care about Becca and John through their parents, siblings, and extended family in the little village in Maine where the actions takes place.

Coming from a small New England town myself, where I've witnessed the seething resentment of the wealthy New Yorkers who come for the summer or the weekend, driving up prices, clogging the roads, trying to change things, I empathize with the difficulties between the Tetherly and Copaken families. Jane Tetherly, single mother of the groom, has lived in Red Hook for generations, caretaking the "outsiders" homes. In fact, she is the housekeeper for Iris Copaken, wealthy New York college professor, a bit of an intellectual snob and mother of Becca who has given up a chance to pursue a classical music career to marry John and ply the Caribbean on the sailboat he is building.

The two women have a tenuous relationship at best. Both families are deeply disappointed in their children's choice of a life partner but intend to make the best of it. After the accident that takes their kids from them, the families become more entwined than they could have imagined. The depth of their grief is not obvious at first, in fact the only sympathetic character is Iris's husband, a lawyer who takes up boxing as a way of channeling his rage. But hang in there with these folks because they are beautifully, slowly, revealed in all their foibles, flaws and humanity.

An interesting subplot revolves around Iris's father, famed classical violinist Emil Kimmelbrod, whose interest in a young protegee, Jane's adopted niece Samantha, threatens to be the final rift between Jane and Iris, and Iris and her long-suffering husband. Ms. Waldman displays an impressive knowledge of (or lots of research on) the types of violins, classical music in general, and the minute care that go into honing a musical talent and that's not even to mention what she teaches us about the detail that's entailed in retrofitting a wooden sailboat.

Red Hook Road was a very satisfying read for me. If you're interested, Diane Rehm hosted Ms. Waldman on her show a few months ago where they discussed her novel:

Meanwhile I started Dave Eggers's Zeitoun which has grabbed me and won't let go. More on that next week after I see what Library Journal has sent me. A book is in the mail!

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