Ayelet Waldman, author of the Mommy Track mystery series, Bad Mother (2009), and Love and Other Impossible Pursuits ( May/June 2006), lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, and their children.
The Story: On their way to their wedding reception in Maine, where the bride’s affluent New York family owns a summer home and the groom’s working-class single mother lives year round, golden couple Becca Copaken and John Tetherly, a local boat builder, tragically die in a car accident. The social differences between the families become readily apparent as Becca’s mother, Iris, embarks on a power struggle with John’s mother, Jane, over their grieving processes, and their younger children turn to each other for solace. But over the four Maine summers following the accident, the different families try to find common ground, and they shakily, uncertainly, start to come together.
Doubleday. 343 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780385517867
Minneapolis Star Tribune
"All of the characters are acutely rendered. ... One of the pleasures of the book is in its detailed description of work: boat building, boxing, teaching and learning music." Brigitte Frase
"Waldman, who made headlines in 2005 for writing that she loved her husband (the writer Michael Chabon) more than her children, articulately plumbs the depths of the parent-child bond with clarity and intense feeling. ... The only trepidation reading this book was that the sadness it so exquisitely portrays is too relentless, that there is no relief from the bleak plot." Carol Memmott
"By shifting points of view, Ms. Waldman gives us an inside look at how surviving members of each family process grief, from anger to bewilderment. ... [Iris’s father Emil Kimmelbrod’s] insights--mostly kept to himself and beautifully understated--give the story a depth and context lacking in the self-centered people around him." Clara Silverstein
"Waldman sometimes seems engaged in an act of emotional masochism. ... Along with lots of wonderful detail about restoring wooden boats and an engaging subplot involving classical music, her best insights are about class conflict in a modest Maine town that endures an annual three-month influx of wealthy, sophisticated visitors who like to think the place belongs to them." Ron Charles
"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." Diane White
San Francisco Chronicle
"Scenes and episodes tend to be rendered more quickly as the story moves forward, so the novel’s best scene is undoubtedly the novel’s first lengthy scene, with the lovingly detailed description of the wedding and the wedding reception before the bad news arrives. For all these reasons, it’s hard to get absorbed in this novel, to lose oneself in the story, and not be aware that one is reading a book that someone wrote." Debra Spark
Critics diverged over Waldman’s dissection of the aftermath of tragedy, loneliness, and grief. While some felt drawn in by the intriguing plot, characters, and portrait of grief, no matter how bleak, others felt hoodwinked by an overly depressing, clichéd story of fairytale romance and family relationships gone terribly awry. The ending ("a sudden loss of narrative control that sends the story careening into melodrama," according to the Washington Post) also left something to be desired. Yet almost every reviewer praised Waldman’s sharp eye for detail--from her descriptions of Maine, boat building, and classical music to her commentary on social and class conflict. In sum, Red Hook Road is probably best for those who want an emotional, tearful read.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.
1. Red Hook Road hinges upon an almost unimaginable and unfathomable tragedy. Was it easy or difficult for you to accept the book’s premise?
2. Think about this statement by Mary Lou, the librarian at the Red Hook Library: “Half the relationships I know are really support groups in disguise.” How does Mary Lou’s assessment apply to the relationships in Red Hook Road?
3. Talk about Iris and Jane. Are they similar to one another in any way? What was at the root of Jane’s intense dislike of Iris?
4. During Iris’s visit, Connie says, “Most of us could use an asylum sometimes. A refuge from the world,” (page 239). Talk about all the different forms of sanctuary taken by key characters. Do these “escapes” help anyone deal with their grief?
5. What is your definition of “family?” Does marriage play a part in forming familial bonds, or is family created purely through blood connections? What does family mean to different characters in Red Hook Road?
6. During “The Second Summer,” Ruthie wants to turn the family’s traditional Fourth of July party into a celebration of the lives of Becca and John. What did you think of Ruthie’s idea? Can you understand why Iris rejected it?
7. Think about the comfort that people take in following traditions; can rituals help people, like the Copakens and Tetherlys, move forward after a setback, or even a tragedy? Did having the party each summer after Becca and John’s deaths ultimately help or hurt Ruthie?
8. Discuss Iris’s father, Mr. Kimmelbrod, particularly the hardships he endured as a young man. In “The Second Summer,” Kimmelbrod reproaches himself for not offering Iris more comfort after the unveiling at the cemetery. Do you think that experiencing great sadness automatically equips a person to console others?
9. Mary Lou the librarian offers this piece of advice as Ruthie considers whether to return to Oxford: “Nothing one does in one’s twenties, short of having a child, is irrevocable,” (page 196). Was this advice something Ruthie wanted to hear, needed to hear, or both? Do you agree with Mary Lou’s sentiment?
10. Consider Samantha’s role in Iris’s life. Would Iris have felt the same way toward Samantha had Becca not died? Was Samantha a representation of the daughter that Iris lost, or the daughter Iris never was herself?
11. Did you guess that Iris would circumvent Jane and approach Connie with the idea of moving Samantha to New York City to pursue her musical studies? Had you been in Iris’s position, would you have done the same thing?
12. Reread the book’s Prelude and Coda, which describe parts of John and Becca’s wedding before they get into the limousine. What was the author’s intent in opening and closing the novel in this way, do you think? Did this device enhance your reading of Red Hook Road?
13. Were you surprised when Daniel left Iris? Given the depths of their sadness and the state of their marriage at the time Daniel moves out, did you expect Iris would have been less shocked than she was?
14. Talk about Iris’s decision to list Becca by her maiden name on the grave marker, despite Becca’s decision to change her last name to Tetherly after she and John married. What does this decision say about Iris, and her relationship with her late daughter? Do you agree with what she did?
15. Throughout the book we learn about Becca and John through flashbacks and remembrances by some of the book’s characters. Would you have preferred to learn about them first-hand, in real time?
16. What does music represent in Red Hook Road? Is it a source of joy or sorrow? A way to hide, or a means of expression?
17. Did you identify with any of the characters? Which one(s), and why? Do you feel it was necessary to have experienced tragedy in order to appreciate what each of the characters in Red Hook Road goes through as they deal with their losses?