Caught up in grief, loss on Maine’s rocky coast
‘Red Hook Road’’ begins with a prelude, appropriately, since so much of this novel involves music. The wedding of a young couple, Becca Copaken and John Tetherly, has just taken place in a small town on the Maine coast. The setting is described gloriously. Then, in a moment of breathtaking horror, a speeding driver crashes into the bridal couple’s limousine and kills them.
Ayelet Waldman’s third novel, apart from her mommy-track mystery series, follows the relatives of the bride and groom over the four summers following the tragedy, revealing how they cope with grief and loss, and how they don’t. Waldman writes with practiced skill. She’s familiar with her subject matter: Maine, classical music, yacht building, violins, lobster molting. She has created some interesting, convincing characters. For all this novel’s strong points, though, it is formulaic women’s fiction. The machinery grinds on, churning out predictably unpredictable plot turns, perfect characters, neatly phrased remarks that will enliven the inevitable movie version.
“Red Hook Road’’ is fine, diverting summer reading, especially for those who prefer to wallow in other people’s family troubles rather than their own, and who doesn’t? And if you can’t be in Maine this summer, you can open this novel and read about what you’re missing: the “sapphire sea,’’ “the rustle of the fir trees,’’ the “waves lapping the rocks of the tattered shore,’’ the lobster, the blueberries, the lupines, the Fourth of July fireworks, the entitled summer people, the resentful natives. It’s a love story, a tragedy, a family saga, as well as a novel about class conflict that pits two stubborn, controlling women against one another, a New York intellectual and a Maine house cleaner. Despite the cultural divide, these women have a lot in common. Each wants the best for her children, as long as the best involves doing exactly what mother wants.
Iris Copaken is a professor at Columbia University specializing in Holocaust studies. Her father, Emil Kimmelbrod, approaching 90, is an internationally known violin virtuoso, a native of Prague whose family perished in the Holocaust. The infirmities of age have forced him to stop performing, but he continues to teach at the Juilliard School in Manhattan and, in the summer, at the Usherman Center in Red Hook, in its renowned summer music program. His late wife, Alice, a Maine native, traced her Red Hook roots back several generations, but this cuts no ice with the locals, who look upon the family as outsiders, summer people, “from away.’’
Like most locals, Jane Tetherly views the “from aways’’ with disdain bordering on loathing. Jane runs a successful house-cleaning service and has raised three children on her own, since she threw out her drunken, abusive husband. Now she’s raising her mentally-ill sister’s adopted child, Samantha, a young Cambodian girl.
Becca’s and John’s deaths have a profound effect on their families. Over the course of four summers, Becca’s sister Ruthie and John’s brother Matt are drawn together. Matt, the first member of his family to attend college, drops out of Amherst in order to realize John’s dream of restoring a wooden yacht and sailing the Caribbean. Ruthie doesn’t return to Oxford for her second Fulbright year. Daniel, Iris’s husband, grows weary of being bossed around by his wife and turns to a youthful passion, boxing, taking out his rage and frustration in the gym. Kimmelbrod, by far the novel’s most appealing character, mentors Samantha, who turns out to be an astonishing violin prodigy. Iris sees an opportunity to fill the void in her life by helping Samantha. She is sure that Jane is not equipped to provide the child with the musical education she deserves and decides to bring Samantha to live with her in New York.
The ending involves a sudden storm that resolves, superficially at least, several issues. The episode has a tacked on, obligatory quality unworthy of the rest of this novel.
Diane White is a freelance writer in Georgetown, Ky., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.