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The Red Book

Review

The Red Book

I love a good reunion drama, don’t you? Not only is it a pop-sociology caper, a way of anatomizing a generation, but it’s high-caliber tragicomedy. A bunch of classmates meet up a decade or two after graduation, and all kinds of high jinks --- cries, whispers, confessions, depressions, hook-ups and break-ups --- ensue. Ever since Mary McCarthy’s 1963 THE GROUP scrutinizing Vassar graduates, class of 1933 (of whom McCarthy was one), and Erich Segal’s THE CLASS (doing the same for his Harvard class of ’58), not to mention the movie The Big Chill (the ’60s generation), the college reunion has become a sub-genre of sorts, and it generally treads a fine line between autobiography and fiction.

"In a reunion novel, the closer the reader is to the generation under the microscope, the more important it is to get the details right. Kogan does. She has a great eye and ear, nailing the ironic cadences, earnest preoccupations and buzzwords of the fortysomethings who people her book."

Deborah Copaken Kogan’s THE RED BOOK is no exception. Kogan’s career track is intimidatingly glam --- late ’80s magna cum laude Harvard graduate; photojournalist in war-torn countries (her memoir, SHUTTERBABE, tells the tale) and novelist (two before this one); mother of three --- and she disperses these elements and more among her protagonists, a quartet of mega-accomplished ex-roommates. (We meet them via the capsule biographies that Harvard alumni are asked to submit every five years; these are gathered into an anniversary report known informally as the Red Book.)

There is a lot of Kogan, an occasional theatrical performer, in Mia, a failed actress/successful mother married to a Hollywood director. Perennially defensive about being “only” a mom, she relives her moment of college glory as Nora in A Doll’s House when she sneaks into an audition during the reunion. Unhappily married Addison --- closeted lesbian, artist manqué, and classic screwup --- writes and speaks with a breezy sarcasm reminiscent of Kogan’s own voice (check out her bio on www.deborahcopakenkogan.com). Clover is a biracial woman raised by below-poverty-level hippie parents; in predictable revolt, she becomes a managing director at Lehman Brothers and has just lost her job in the financial meltdown of 2008. Too distinctive to be merely a token Person of Color (she is also the novel’s symbolic Trying Vainly to Become Pregnant figure), Clover nonetheless suggests Kogan’s determination to be inclusive in constructing her cast of characters. Lastly is Vietnam-born Jane, adopted by an army doctor in Saigon; a Paris-based photojournalist, she mirrors Kogan’s own professional trajectory. (In my opinion, she is also the most persuasive of the lot.)

There are plenty of other characters in THE RED BOOK, mostly men (and a few women) who are somehow connected to the four protagonists. Kogan introduces them through their Harvard bios, though they also play major or minor parts in the story. The upside of this kaleidoscopic unfolding is that it affords a more comprehensive take on her generation, from trust-fund babies who have frittered away the money to guys who gave up fancy careers to become high-school teachers or Subaru dealers. There is a lesbian couple who got pregnant at the same time, using sperm from their respective brothers, and there is the requisite transsexual. There are idealists who stuck to their principles and passions, like the little theater director and the breast cancer research advocate. Kogan thus manages to fold in a great many twistings and turnings beyond the paths walked by her main characters. The downside is that it dilutes the book’s focus and sometimes teeters on the edge of cliché (Jane’s French would-be husband is too cute; the theater director/gay dad’s breakthrough moment with his own father is a bit too good to be true).

In a reunion novel, the closer the reader is to the generation under the microscope, the more important it is to get the details right. Kogan does. She has a great eye and ear, nailing the ironic cadences, earnest preoccupations and buzzwords of the fortysomethings who people her book. Moreover, she is, quite simply, a hell of a writer, with great momentum and style and zero sentimentality or dumbness. Some of her sentences flirt with stand-up comedy. How did golden boy Bucky, Clover’s onetime boyfriend, look after two decades? “‘A little like he’d been run over by life’s truck,’ said Mia.” Or take Addison’s daughter, Trilby, describing her mother’s capacity for self-deception: “[Her lies] are so ingrained into her being, they’ve become their own form of truth, like a banker’s.”

A wise-ass tone, while infinitely entertaining, can also be limiting. There are glimpses of a finer, quieter novel within THE RED BOOK, especially when Kogan explores perennially gut-wrenching stuff like parents dying, spouses cheating (a few too many of those in the novel, whatever the statistical justification), having a career vs. having kids. All her characters are in the grip of serious angst over their identity and choices, but Kogan hits her emotional stride particularly in several scenes involving Jane: a heartstopping passage in which she tells her dying, ravaged mother that she looks “breathtaking” when visitors come (“It wasn’t a lie exactly --- there is a weird, undeniable splendor in the face of the doomed --- but the word and its verb root allowed them the open-to-interpretation elasticity that less malleable adjectives [beautiful, lovely] could not provide”); her dismay at the revelation of her idealized late husband’s betrayal; her shocked discovery that her mother had a lover and her beautifully wrought, resonant encounter with him.

Kogan also does well by the next generation; she has Addison’s Trilby and Mia’s Max fall for each other, and their love scene is replete with sweet, artless texture and dialogue --- irresistible. But just when the reader is getting involved, there is a quick shift. The kids’ parents catch the young couple (almost) in the act, and the book goes Hollywood, evoking an offbeat rom-com like The Kids Are All Right (if somebody hasn’t already optioned this novel for the movies, I’d be very surprised). It’s fast and funny and wacky, but I can’t help feeling that an opportunity for authenticity has been lost.

Authenticity, the theme of Clover’s eulogy for a dead classmate toward the book’s end, is also Kogan’s mantra. About halfway through THE RED BOOK, Lytton --- a suicidal, schizophrenic genius who was once the Subaru dealer’s roommate (his Red Book entry lists only “last known address”) --- becomes the unlikely spokesperson for this idea, attacking classmates who have reneged on their youthful dreams. “You went to Harvard, for fu--’s sake!” Lytton shouts. “You had every opportunity in the world laid out on a silver platter at your goddamned feet…. What the hell’s keeping you from what you’re meant to do, huh?” If he were healthy, he goes on to say, he would be trying to cure the planet’s ills, and he quotes educator Horace Mann: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

Do our heroines meet Lytton’s challenge? The novel begins with their Red Book summaries; satisfyingly and symmetrically, it winds up with the same women’s entries five years later.

I dare you not to peek.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on April 12, 2012

The Red Book
by Deborah Copaken Kogan

  • Publication Date: May 7, 2013
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Voice
  • ISBN-10: 1401341993
  • ISBN-13: 9781401341992