About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Friday, July 1, 2011

#54: Red Hook Road

Red Hook Road, by Ayelet Waldman (New York: Doubleday, 2010).

"Becca Copaken and John Tetherly are young and in love, and the future looks as bright as the day of their marriage. Becca's family is well-to-do and summers in Red Hook, Maine, where John's mother, Jane, runs a housecleaning service for clients like the Copakens. The only thing that binds the two families is the love the elated couple share, but it's enough to bring them together for the occasion.

"Until the unthinkable happens: Becca and John's limousine collides with another vehicle mere minutes after the wedding, killing them instantly. Joy gives way to grief, and the rifts between Becca's mother, Iris, and Jane grow, from the funeral arrangements to Iris's strong-willed interest in the musical career of Jane's niece to a new romance that buds between the surviving children, Ruthie and Matt. Time's healing powers prove elusive for Iris and Jane. Iris's thirty-year marriage disintegrates, while Jane's bitterness threatens to ruin her relationship with Matt. Only when a powerful, blinding storm hits Red Hook do the families begin to see what really matters most."

Opening Line:
"The flower girl had lost her basket of rose petals and could not bear to have the photograph taken without it."

My Take:
I had a few rough days this week -- let's say I was definitely in the valleys of the unemployment roller coaster -- and went to the library looking to be entertained and distracted. Don't worry if that doesn't automatically scream "couple killed on their wedding day" to you; Mr. Hazelthyme didn't get it, either. It's about catharsis, people ... that, and reading something that doesn't take too long or make you work too hard to become engaged.

So far (I'm on page 130), this fits the bill: hard to put down, but beautifully written with an excellent eye for detail and nuance. Given the subject matter, that does indeed mean it's painfully sad in parts. One example: the following early passage, where John's brother Matt reflects on whether it's more painful when others mention his late brother, or when they don't speak about him:
"At the sound of their names, Ruthie twitched. For the first couple of weeks Matt had felt the same way. Every mention of the names of the dead seemed to light a small hot fire inside him. Then one day a few weeks back he woke up and found that, suddenly, the opposite was true: it was the minutes, the hours, the entire days that went by without someone mentioning John that hurt Matt the most. He had tried to talk about John to his mother, but that went nowhere. So he had started hanging out with John's friends. Every evening he would head over to the Neptune, and stake out a stool in the middle of the bar. As people trickled in they would stop and pass a few minutes with him. Some offered no more than their condolences, some tried to buy him a beer. And that was okay. But what Matt was waiting for were the stories. About the birch bark canoe with swept-up gunwale and a squared bow that John and a friend had built for a middle school project on the Passamaquoddy tribe. About how one hunting season, when another buddy was laid up with a broken leg, John had filled his freezer with venison steaks, because he knew the guy relied on his yearly buck to feed his family. They'd retell John's jokes -- Matt must have heard the one about the robber in the sperm bank a dozen times. They'd remind one another about practical jokes John had played on them. The guys, as sad as they were, as much as they missed their friend, always ended up laughing, especially once they'd had a few. And if Matt rarely laughed out loud with them, as long as he was sitting on that barstool he felt okay. He felt like he was close to his brother. He was dreading the end of the summer, dreading the prospect of going back to college and being surrounded by people who had never known John, who had never laughed at his jokes or been the beneficiaries of his unsolicited largesse, who didn't know or care that he was dead."
(afterwards) Excellent book. It follows the surviving Copaken and Tetherly family members through the five summers that follow John and Becca's deaths, trying to move on with their lives knowing all the while there really is no such thing -- no going back to the way it was Before. As the summary suggests, Ruthie and Matt find comfort in each other, and struggle with the usual twenty-something "who am I and what am I doing with my life?" questions beneath the weight of their losses. Ruthie, who can't bear to return to London and the Fulbright her mother's always dreamed of/ expected for her, finds unexpected satisfaction working in the tiny Red Hook library ... while Matt finds a disappointing lack of the same as he endeavors to finish the work John started restoring an old wooden schooner. Jane is so committed to her stiff-upper-lipped New England stoicism that she can't even bear to talk about John, which strains her relationship with her surviving son. Iris channels her pain into overseeing the education of Samantha, Jane's niece and ward, who had been Becca and John's nine-year-old flower girl, and turns out to be a musical prodigy who's talent's gone unrecognized by her family to date. Daniel, Iris's husband and Becca and Ruthie's father, finds an outlet in the training and boxing he'd enjoyed as a young man, even if this opens a near-fatal rift in his marriage to Iris. Under the tutelage of Iris's father, renowned violinist Mr. Kimmelbrod, Samantha blossoms as a violinist, and teaching her gives him something positive to cling to even as his body grows increasingly frail. The ending is a little too dramatic for my tastes (thought it would probably translate quite well to film, and seeing this happen wouldn't surprise me much), but overall, this one's a keeper and a recommend-to-others book.

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