RED HOOK ROAD by Ayelet Waldman

Book Quote:

“They had fallen in love at sixteen and over the next ten years had, despite distance and difference, never swerved in their determination to reach this day. The faces in the photograph were alight with joy, and for a long time the bride’s mother would not be able to pass the picture hanging in the front parlor of her summer house without feeling a knot in her stomach and a rush of tears. In time the photograph would recede into the general oblivion of furnishings and knickknacks.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody (JUL 12, 2010)

Without much ado, let me state that I think this book is brilliant. It took my breath away and grabbed me by my heart from the first page till its stunning coda. Without being maudlin or histrionic, Ayelet Waldman’s Red Hook Road examines the impact of loss and grief on two families, each as different as day and night.

In the first chapter of the book, the reader is spectator to a profound tragedy. A young couple, married for about one hour, die in a car accident on the way to their own wedding reception.

The bride is Becca Copaken and the groom is John Tetherly. Becca comes from a Jewish intellectual family that has summered in Maine all of her life. Her grandfather, Mr. Kimmelbrod, is a holocaust survivor, and had been a concert violinist until recently when he became symptomatic for Parkinson’s Disease. Iris, Becca’s mother, is a holier-than-thou professor of the holocaust who thinks she knows what’s best for everyone. Beccas’s father is an attorney who never made partner and makes his living as an adjunct professor at a second-rate law school. Becca’s sister, Ruthie, goes to Harvard where she is studying English literature and has her eyes set on academe. She is emotionally needy and dependent. Becca had stepped away from her family’s traditions. She gave up her chance to be a concert violinist by giving up the violin completely and dropping out of conservatory.

John is a master boat designer who builds wooden yachts. He comes from a family of sturdy Maine folk who are not college educated and have lived by the generosity of the sea. His mother, Jane, is taciturn and autonomous, not wanting to feel grateful to anyone. She thinks of the Copakens as snooty and part-timers in Maine. Her ex-husband is a ne’er-do-well and Jane has survived by starting a house cleaning business. In fact, she cleans the Copaken’s home. John has a ne’er-do-well sister who is on welfare. He also has a brother, Matt, who is a student at Amherst. Matt is the first person in the Tetherly family to attend college.

The novel is divided into four parts: the first, second, third and fourth year after the tragedy. We watch as the families are forced to interact with one another despite wanting to keep their distance. We watch them in the classic stages of grief as defined by the physician and researcher, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: Denial, Anger, Bargaining/Blame, Depression, and finally Acceptance. The stages are not always linear but they tend to be present in this order as each person works out their personal losses. As the years pass, the families move from denial and anger towards acceptance.

The novel is lyrical and moving at every stage. In fact, there is a lot about music in this book which serves as a wonderful backdrop and metaphor to what is happening to the families. Mr. Kimmelbrod is 92 years old but still teaches a few students in the local conservatory. By chance, the families find out that Jane’s niece, an adopted Cambodian child, has perfect pitch and is a musical prodigy. Mr. Kimmelbrod takes her under his wing and gives her violin lessons. We watch her flourish and we can almost hear the music jump off the pages.

I was especially taken by Mr. Kimmelbrod’s stoicism and very rare display of external emotion despite a sea of feeling residing inside him. Here is a man who has suffered some of life’s most profound losses at Terezin Concentration Camp, yet has been able to find meaning in life and a way to love others. He is not unlike his granddaughter Ruthie who flounders with the spoken word yet has a world of expression just beyond her capacity to verbalize. The two families are actually much more alike than they think. Jane is stoic and unlikely to show feelings yet they resound deeply in her spirit. Both families have a love of wood, one for beautiful boats and the other for violins.

This is as much a book about Maine as it is about grieving families. The reader can feel the pulse of the sea, the solid stoicism of the rocks, and the danger of the granite outcroppings in a place that can be fickle: at times loving and welcoming and at other times dangerous and moody. The weather and elements can cause death in an instant. This is the atmosphere that the book portrays and the reader feels throughout.

Ms. Waldman’s writing is riveting and beautiful. She uses her words like a musician plays an instrument: for beauty, impact, power, melody and mood. It is rare to find such fine writing on such a difficult subject. The only other book I’ve read that portrays grief as beautifully as this is How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall. If this review encourages at least one person to pick up this amazing book, I’ll have achieved my purpose.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 98 readers
PUBLISHER: Doubleday (July 13, 2010)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Ayelet Waldman
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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July 12, 2010 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  В· Posted in: Contemporary, Family Matters, Literary, NE & New York, Reading Guide

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