Red Hook Road
Ayelet Waldman
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Buy *Red Hook Road* by Ayelet Waldman online

Red Hook Road
Ayelet Waldman
352 pages
July 2010
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Waldman’s poignant novel is framed around the collateral damage of a car accident and the healing powers of classical music. The Tetherlys of Maine and the Copakens of New York enjoy the wedding of John Tetherly to Becca Copaken, the beautiful bride and handsome groom arrayed in their finery against the crisp lines of Red Hook village’s white clapboard church. Although the story begins with their wedding, the author's putative focus is on the brittle relationship of Iris Copaken, an accomplished literature professor, and Jane Tetherly, Iris’s tight-lipped housecleaner - the devoted mothers of the bride and groom.

Over the past twenty years, Iris and Jane’s relationship of “mutual contradictions” has worked quite well, although it’s pretty clear that Jane and Iris are not that close, or even amicable. Jane has no interest in any relationship with Iris other than the most formal. For her part, Jane resents Iris's uppity ways, this self-important woman from the City and daughter of a concert violinist. Jane is all too aware that she's merely viewed by Iris's family as the working-class daughter of a local boat builder.

In the aftermath of the accident, the grief of these two women undulates outward in a “crazed fog," along with a long-simmering class resentment. Iris allows her bitterness to build. Forced to face a life without her beloved daughter, she begins to resent her husband, Daniel, who originally gave Becca permission to abandon her precious musical career. While Daniel slips into his own world, moving away from his wife and finding solace at the local boxing ring, Jane is overwhelmed by exhaustion and finds temporary comfort in the familiar exertion of cleaning.

Jane is furious at Iris and her insistence at the needlessly elaborate wedding, and also at John for having entangled himself with that “useless, pretentious, hapless family." Only Matt, her youngest son, seems to help her though this difficult time. Matt has taken over John’s project: the restoration of a 1938 Alden schooner. Ironically named Rebecca, the derelict boat later becomes a critical symbol for the brittle emotions that tie these people together.

Like a Bach fugue, Waldman balances the fragility of Iris’s grandfather, legendary concert violinist Mr. Kimmelbrod, as he begins to teach Samantha, a young Cambodian girl who throughout the course of the story becomes his musical prodigy and muse. Encouraged by the meddling Iris, who earns the rancor first of Jane and then of Daniel, Samantha struggles for artistic expression: “a tiny shoot of green in an arid landscape.” Meanwhile, Iris’s youngest daughter, Ruthie, falls into Matt's arms as she seeks to bind her family back together though a July 4th memorial for Becca and John.

Expanding on her themes of loss and love, Waldman’s prose is always elegant as she digs into her characters’ domestic lives. Music dominates this story, providing the ultimate healing force as do the comfort of daily surroundings. The message is clear: Iris and Jane must learn to forgive and put the senseless deaths of their children behind them. The memories of Becca and John are also powerful forces, their images always present, wrapped in a soft, white cocoon while the dramas of Red Hook play out, swirling in a fierce landscape of pain and loss where the energies of love and music gradually come together as one.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2010

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