In most families, when two people get married, the bride's and groom's parents aren't really expected to have an ongoing relationship. They'll interact at the wedding reception, to be sure, and maybe at the odd holiday gathering. Otherwise, though, they probably won't see much of each other until their children have a baby, when showers and other festivities will bring them together in another flurry of celebration.
But what happens when strangers, brought together by the chance fact of their children's love for each other, are suddenly united further by the common experience of unimagined tragedy? That's the situation Ayelet Waldman imagines in her latest novel, RED HOOK ROAD, as a family's moment of celebration turns to horror and sorrow in an instant.
Becca Copaken and John Tetherly have been in love since high school. Now, they're ready to make it official. After their marriage, they'll finish the beautiful antique boat John has been restoring and sail it from Down East Maine to the Caribbean, where he will be a charter boat captain, and Becca will crew and cook for the tourists who buy time on the boat.
But on the day that should be the happiest for both John's and Becca's families, the newlyweds are killed in a car accident on their way from the church to the reception site, where their friends and family wait to celebrate with them. Celebration turns to horror and mourning as their parents --- especially their mothers --- try not only to discover how to move forward without their children but also to determine what they owe to each other, to these strangers whose relationship is almost totally undefined, at least in English.
For Iris, Becca's mother, the Hebrew word machatunim defines the relationship between people whose children marry. But what happens if those children die at the very moment their married life has begun? Does the machatunim relationship endure? Iris's relationship with John's mother Jane has always been awkward; Jane cleans the Copakens' summer home in Red Hook during the summer and serves as caretaker in the winter, when the Copakens head back to Manhattan. Iris and Jane live in different worlds --- Jane resents Iris for her easy wealth and her dubious claim to be part of Red Hook, even though Jane and the other locals would still label her "from away." Iris doesn't understand Jane's brusqueness and can't get over the chip on her shoulder, especially about the financial help the Copakens have always offered John. But now these two women need to find a way to move on --- together, or at least parallel --- as they confront their intertwined losses.
RED HOOK ROAD covers not only the wrenching day of the young couple's death, it also checks in on the families for each of the three subsequent summers, tracing the often winding, backtracking, undeniably hazardous road of grief and sorrow. Iris and her husband Daniel's marriage falters; Iris takes an intense interest in Jane's musically gifted great-niece; and Becca's younger sister, Ruthie, and John's younger brother, Matt, start a tentative love affair of their own, caught between their desire to honor their siblings and their longing to create their own story.
It's evident that Waldman's interest is primarily in the Copaken clan; with the exception of a few powerful scenes near the novel's opening, the narrative unfolds mostly through the points of view of Iris, Daniel, Ruthie and Iris's elderly father. Jane's character is less well developed, perhaps her New England stoicism and fierce working-class pride seeming at times to serve mainly as a foil to Iris's own brand of emotional detachment and self-delusion. The relationships Waldman explores, however, are genuine and complicated, her metaphors --- of boat-building and music-making --- appropriate and true.
The situation Waldman creates in RED HOOK ROAD is obviously extreme, almost unimaginable in its pathos. But this tragedy could, in its way, stand in for the innumerable events --- surprising joys, unpopular choices, tragedies, and setbacks little and big --- that characterize the lives of families all the time.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011
Red Hook Road