Summer is officially over, bringing an end to the lazy days of summer novels. But if you can't quite let go, perhaps Ayelet Waldman's "Red Hook Road" will scratch your itch, as well as serve as a transition to the more sober days ahead. While set over the course of four summers on the vacation-worthy Maine coast, this is a novel with a somber tone and subject matter -- perhaps appropriate for autumn's arrival. The story opens with the Shakespeare-esque tragedy of newlyweds dying in a car accident on their wedding day. The remainder of the book is dedicated to the families of these two young people as they go through all the stages of grief. The story is not as much of a downer as it sounds though, thanks to Waldman's skillful writing that creates layers of emotion and moving interactions between a well-drawn cast of characters.
Just as weddings can unite two unlikely families that otherwise may prefer to have little to do with each other, the Tetherlys and Copakens find themselves intertwined in their shared loss. In particular Waldman explores the relationship of the mothers as they go from being mother of the bride or groom to mother of a deceased child. At the beginning one wonders about the other: "How could she allow herself to break down like that, in front of everybody? Jane had never understood this willingness on the part of these from-aways to peel up the scabs of their emotions and let everyone see their festering sores."
Waldman is clearly a talented writer. She makes vivid both the physical and cultural landscape of the Maine coast, populated both with locals and New Yorkers with summer homes. She also develops multidimensional characters with various passions that make for interesting sub-themes. For instance, the grandfather (a Copaken) is a former violin virtuoso who finds a young prodigy in the Tetherly's niece. When they are looking for a new instrument for the girl, the narrator muses, "Choosing a violin is like falling in love. While there is always the chance that one's initial commitment will prove to be a mistake, it is impossible to go forward without that first wave of intense infatuation."
Waldman's incredible attention to detail in describing the interests of her characters, from the tools involved in building a wooden sailboat to the lineage of violin masters, will delight those knowledgeable about these specialties. But what gives her details power for a general audience is their ability to convey emotion. Take, for example, the moment when the mother of the bride convinces the mother of the groom to come to a get-together thrown in the deceased couple's honor: "Iris's shoulders sagged with relief. 'Thank you so much, Jane. This means a tremendous amount to Ruthie.' Then she took a big forkful of cake. The bottom was a tad soggy, and the lime might have been grated a bit more finely. But it was good. It would do."
Waldman has a knack for letting us in on the personal significance of seemingly ordinary conversations by showing an interaction, and then showing the backstory of what's going on inside one of the participant's heads at the time. In the relationships of the survivors, Waldman shows how shared loss can both bring people together and drive them apart. But she also shows the individual processing of emotion: "Mr. Kimmelbrod had always and thoroughly kept all emotion tamped down, so deeply hidden that it raised a near existential question. Could something be so thoroughly suppressed that it might as well not even exist?"
Waldman's characters illustrate that there are as many ways to grieve as there are people who grieve. In showing us that, her writing feels timely and true with our recent honoring of the thousands of families who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001.