Thursday, September 16, 2010

Red Hook Road by Ayelet Waldman — 352 pgs


Book CoverThe Tetherleys and the Copakens are two families living on the coast of Maine who are about to be joined forever by the marriage of their two oldest children, Becca and John. After a beautiful if tense wedding, a horrible car accident on the way to the reception leaves both Becca and John dead. As the two families struggle with their shared grief, the gulf widens between them. Iris Copaken and Jane Tetherley, both mothers who have lost their children, find themselves in an awkward and uncomfortable dance of a relationship, with Iris dictating the steps to an increasingly wary and hostile Jane. Meanwhile, the two younger siblings of the lost couple begin a relationship that strangely mirrors the one between the deceased couple. As the tale winds itself around four summers, the two families begin to see that the bond that was forged with Becca and John's wedding will not be easily broken. Both tender and at times sorrowful, Red Hook Road gives a peek into the lives of two very different families bound together by tragedy.

This is my first book by Ayelet Waldman, though I've heard good things about her work. I think the thing that struck me the most about this book was the way Waldman encapsulates the tender and ever-changing relationship between a mother and her children. Though there are many other types of relationships portrayed in this book, these mother-to-child relationships seemed to be the glue that held the story together and really placed the framework for the rest of the tale. I was surprised to find such a complete and genuine examination of the subject in the book, mostly, I think, because I had been expecting something a little different.

One of the things I liked about this book was the fact that although the two female protagonists were not all that likable, I was able to feel a lot of sympathy and understanding for them. It's rare to find a character that you don't like but can completely understand. For the most part, I thought Iris was domineering and controlling, and her actions spoke loudly of her need to organize and dominate everyone else's lives. It happened time and time again that Iris would assert herself in ways that totally took the decision-making power our of another person's hands. This was true of all of her relationships and I considered the possibility that Iris was really trying to live through people instead of letting them make their own choices and mistakes. I wasn't really fond of her but I did feel like I could relate to her in some ways and I also felt that not all of her actions were completely selfish. Jane, on the other hand, was more of a cold fish and she wasn't a nice person. Most of the time the reader is in her head, she is complaining and bitter. I got the impression that she felt that her future had been compromised by her past and that she was a little smug and condescending about the people who surrounded her. She was not a person who I liked spending time with but I did feel like she almost had a right to be bitter about her life and situation. She was very human and it felt very real to be in her head. Both of these women just felt right somehow. They felt like real people, with warts and flaws in all the right places.

The relationship between the two families was really more about the relationship between Iris and Jane than anything else. Iris was constantly trying to exert control over Jane, with Jane attempting to back away and over time developing a palpable undercurrent of anger and a strange sort of detachment towards her rival. When the two women come to see that they need each other and that this relationship would persist in spite of all that is expected, they slowly begin to reassess and move towards some closure. It was an interesting relationship between two very different women, one fraught with false politeness and misunderstanding. This relationship gave a really nice texture and gravitas to the story, and felt very organic.

The book shares the narrative between the two women, giving each of them space to relate their frustrations with each other and their families. As is often the case after a tragedy, the close relationships in the women's lives begin to break down and things that they took for granted before are suddenly at risk of falling apart. For Iris, the tragedy unmasked flaws in her marriage and relationship with her remaining child; and for Jane, the problems erupted with her child, and more importantly within herself. I think at the heart of each of these deconstructions was the women's loneliness, their inability to understand the way the tragedy would change and shape their lives, and their frustration at the great loss they both shared. It was odd that instead of bonding in their grief that they became set against each other as players in an elaborate power struggle, but the way Waldman skillfully crafts this relationship, it also seems very realistic. The love they had for their absent children makes them mirrors of one another, but in reality, they couldn't be more different.

I must say that although this book had a bit of a slow start for me, I ended up greatly admiring it. Though the impetus for the story is a terrible tragedy, Waldman does an amazing job of giving her readers a glimpse of the real struggles and joys of family life that occur after the unthinkable happens. It was an emotionally encompassing read and one that felt very genuine. I think those readers who enjoy emotionally complex and thoughtful books would really like this one. I found myself very impressed with Waldman's execution of the story and its emotional range. Though the issues in this book can be heavy, it's not in the least maudlin or oppressive, which I really appreciated. A very sensitive and thought proving read, recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

15 comments:

Jenny said...

Great review! It sounds like a great character study. I started reading this a while ago and put it down b/c I just wasn't in the mood for it at the time. I really need to get back to it one of these days. The dynamics of the relationship between in-laws like that has interested me for a while (pretty much since I've been married). It's ironic b/c you would think they'd bond with each other in grief rather than being against each other!

Sandy Nawrot said...

I've heard very good reviews of this one. In fact, I've also heard the audio is worth a listen. I need to go see if our wonderful OCLS has it...

Steph said...

Great minds think alike! I'm actually reading this book RIGHT NOW! :D So far just a little over halfway through and liking it a good deal. I think Waldman's done a good job of making a difficult subject feel thoughtful and not gimmicky. Can't wait to see how it all turns out!

bermudaonion said...

I felt the same way about Iris and Jane and thought people found it easier to just give into Iris. I think she thought she knew better than everyone else. I loved this book, but it left me with a sad feeling.

Jenny said...

After reading Waldman's collection of essays about motherhood, I definitely want to try some of her fiction. She writes in such a funny way and still is able to make me cry. Love her.

Suko said...

Zibilee, I often find slow to start books turn out to be the best ones, more complex and thoughtful and worthwhile. Terrific, insightful review--as usual.

Pam said...

I read this book a little while ago and thought it was OK. I wish I had read your review first. I think your insights (which are profound) may have informed my thinking and opinion of the book. I know that I definitely didn't get so much out of this book. I'm really impresses. Looking forward to reading more of you reviews.

Marie said...

I'm glad it picked up for you after a slow start. It sounds like a very deep character study; in law relationships are so difficult!

Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I never did get to this one for its August releases bit hope to by year's end. It does sound like a compelling read. Thanks Heather.

Amy said...

I've heard great things about this and Waldman's other writings. I might have to check it out at some point :)

Mystica said...

Stories about relationships are always interesting. They add such variety to the read. I'd love to be able to get my hands on this book.

Meghan said...

I particularly enjoyed this book; I just felt like it was so very real. The ways the two women interacted and the different handlings of grief by all the characters were definitely the high points for me.

Jeanne said...

While I agree with everything you say about Iris and Jane, I found the ending a bit contrived, compared to the rest of the novel. It sounds like the characters carried you right past that.

nomadreader said...

I really liked this one too! I was amazed how well-crafted and subtle it was. I enjoyed it while I was reading it as a reader, but the writer in me was wowed when I realized how much restraint Waldman showed as she told this story.

Literary Feline said...

You've definitely got me curious about this one. I really like books that focus on relationships, and do so in such a way to really make them feel real and relate-able.

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