When tragedy strikes, learning to move on
Red Hook Road, the latest novel from Ayelet Waldman (Love and Other Impossible Pursuits), begins with an almost unimaginable tragedy—the death of a young couple in a fiery automobile accident barely an hour after their wedding ceremony—and, in its aftermath over the course of four summers in a small town in coastal Maine, weaves a tale of equally profound redemption and grace.
After Becca Copaken and John Tetherly perish on Red Hook Road, the tensions between their families, centering on the relations between the two matriarchs, quickly bubble to the surface. Iris Copaken is a professor of comparative literature, the daughter of Emil Kimmelbrod, an eminent violinist who escaped the fate of his family in the Holocaust. Though she’s descended from solid Maine stock on her mother’s side and has summered there her entire life, Iris is still considered one of those “from away” in the eyes of Jane Tetherly, who runs a cleaning service and whose family’s humble past and troubled present contrast with the Copakens’ more genteel existence.
The devastating double loss ripples outward through a diverse and generally sympathetic cast of characters, and Waldman displays a sure hand in portraying the subtly different effect those deaths have on each one. Becca’s sister and John’s brother, Ruthie and Matt, increasingly attracted to each other, struggle to decide whether to abandon promising academic careers to realize their older siblings’ dream of reconditioning a classic wooden yacht to start a Caribbean charter service. Mr. Kimmelbrod becomes a mentor to Samantha, a Cambodian girl adopted by Jane’s sister and a violin prodigy. Iris and her husband Daniel must confront the fault lines in their long marriage. No one touched by such terrible loss can emerge from the experience unscathed, and the faltering steps taken by Waldman’s characters feel organic, not shoehorned into any prepackaged notion of grief’s unfolding and resolution.
Enhancing the drama at the story’s core, and delivered with unfussy erudition, are insights into the craft of yacht building, the music of Bach and the unchanging rhythms of summer life along the Maine coast. These elements coalesce to create a palpably realistic world.
The danger facing any novelist wrestling with the subject of unfathomable grief lies in allowing honest emotions to spill over into excessive sentimentality. In telling a story charged throughout with intense emotion, Waldman navigates that boundary with confidence and empathy.