July 2010

Kati Nolfi

Bad Behavior

Red Hook Road

Ayelet Waldman’s fiction has a refinement and musicality that her brash and breezy nonfiction lacks. Yet one can certainly see a similarity between Red Hook Road, her new novel, and her 2009 essay collection Bad Mother; they elucidate each other. I hate to infer a roman-á-clef where none exists, but Iris, the main character has shades of Ayelet; like Red Hook’s seawater, she is bracing and caustic. In some ways the novel is about mothering. The two mothers in the book are from different places and have different approaches, but both are in opposition to the men in their lives who display either generous compassion or lackadaisical reserve, not their maternal fire and ice. The book promises at first to be cozy and dull, working against its dramatic moments to communicate gentility, but then finds strong footing with the affirming story of family grief and loss. I was frustrated at the beginning by the abundance of setting, the prettiness of surfaces and interiors, and the surfeit of characters introduced immediately. There was so much scaffolding without any action. But then the story really begins, after the crash, the death, the unraveling.

The novel is structured around the family drama of the Tetherlys and the Copakens in four summers on the Maine coast, almost like four short stories. It begins with a wedding, which feels hackneyed at first, but what better than a display of extravagance to set up the class tensions, imbalance between locals and from-aways, and family drama of the novel? There is a celebration, death, and subsequently a funeral to which the guests wear their wedding outfits. The juxtaposition of marriage and death punctuates the strangeness of grief. I have experienced the death of a child during a celebration. It is brutal and banal and shocking.

The starched formality and anxiety of the beginning is displaced by the characters working through raw dudgeon and emotional pugilism. Iris is intractable and autocratic and now untethered; her husband Daniel is absent and longs to return to boxing to fight off his suffering; and her daughter Ruthie is fleeing academia for comfort and authenticity. Red Hook Road is a handbook offering all the varieties of responding to loss. In four years people shrink or bloom. In a way, the Tetherlys and Copakens, so different at the outset, meet each other in a middle space, contract by the end to a common understanding that comes in part from weariness. One family gains mastery, and the other family loses bravado. The flower girl at the beginning, a blubbery baby, an adoptee and immigrant, grows into the grandfather’s most committed and talented student. The two most unlikely characters are partnered by identity and pain. The younger generations become twins, mirrors, and patterns of the older, by accident, genetics, or design. The initial primary relationship of the novel that we expected to be the focus becomes usurped and paralleled by the romance of the younger siblings who envied and admire them. Daniel’s boxing, Mr. Kimmelbrod’s violin, Jane’s Nilla Wafer confections and sleeping pills, and Matt’s boat are proxies for their suffering, the solutions to the pain, and the distractions from it.

Anything maudlin is tempered by the gravity of Mr. Kimmelbrod. The debilitated and wise immigrant genius violinist could have become a cliché, but is really the conscience of the book -- he has lost so many, and has never been able to process the loss. This tells us what we would rather not know: getting over death means forgetting the beloved. Mr. Kimmelbrod attempts distance from people, to alleviate pain. Iris stakes her claim on people, and Red Hook; though she has lived in Manhattan for most of her life, she sees Maine as her home. For Iris, people are projects, constantly under construction, to be completed and beautified, to achieve excellence. Even as she sees Ruthie as her double because of their shared intellectual pursuits and disinterest in socializing, it is clear that they are opposite: Iris is self-involved and Ruthie reaches out to others to ameliorate her pain. As a Jew, Ruthie wants to use her religion’s prescriptions for burial, mourning, and memorial, but she doesn’t know the rules. She clings to Kaddish, fireworks, parties, libraries, anything that will cure her depression. The end of grief keeps getting away from the inhabitants of Red Hook, and from the reader, who senses that another tragedy will occur to bookend the trauma of the beginning. Death can deepen the grooves in our personalities, or impel a radical reaction.

Ayelet Waldman has used repetition, forgetting, and remembering to create a literary puzzle with rich intellectual and emotional rewards. There is a storm towards the end. There is destruction. The ghosts of Becca and John die, and the families’ pain is released. Anything you need to know about this book is stated toward the end: “Why continue to pour your heart into these obsolete arts? Because their beauty, the way they connect you to your history and to the living world, justifies your efforts.” A delicate and insistent book about death, Red Hook Road proves life and art are worth it.