By Ron Charles
Wednesday, July 21, 2010; C04
RED HOOK ROAD
By Ayelet Waldman
Doubleday. 343 pp. $25.95
One of my favorite Joyce Carol Oates novels -- "The Falls" -- opens with the groom drowning a few hours after his wedding night. Now, Ayelet Waldman cuts the honeymoon even shorter: In her new novel, "Red Hook Road," the groom and the bride die in a traffic accident between the church and the reception. Anyone hoping to push this grim sub-genre further will have to slay the newlyweds at the altar. But whereas Oates uses that nuptial tragedy for her own weird brand of macabre comedy, Waldman sometimes seems engaged in an act of emotional masochism. It's hard to look away, even when you can smell the burning rubber of such expert manipulation.
Fittingly, "Red Hook Road" begins with the taking of the wedding photos, that tense herding of giddy bridesmaids, hungover groomsmen and anxious parents when the artificiality of the marriage ceremony is spun to its highest sugary peaks. Waldman applies a dollop of satire, but the summer day could not be more lovely: The white clapboard church along the Maine shore, the carefully restored reception hall, the sumptuous food, all of it has been expensively arranged with "a kind of rustic opulence, at once simple and glorious." The better to wound us on page 34 when the groom's brother stumbles in "ashen, his bow tie askew," causing the bride's sister to stand "frozen in place, as if nailed to the ground." (Tragically, in moments of real drama, Waldman steers directly into oncoming cliches.)
Not to speak ill of the dead, but it would have been nice if the late groom and his brief wife hadn't been such paragons of romantic bliss. Sweethearts since they were 16, Becca and John are the kindest, smartest, prettiest couple you'd ever want to meet: She plays the violin; he designs yachts. I expected bluebirds to bring the veil.
Of course, Waldman knows a thing or two about perfect unions herself. Five years ago, this Harvard-trained lawyer rubbed our faces in her fairy-tale marriage to America's hippest writer, Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon. She published an essay proclaiming that she'd rather have sex with Chabon -- "always vital, even torrid" -- than build Lego castles with her kids (who wouldn't?). Then, per the standard PR routine, she feigned shock and disappointment when that column established her as the infamous "Bad Mother" of a thousand op-eds, blog postings and the inevitable Oprah appearance. And last year she published an unapologetic collection called "Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace."
Since she gave up her law career, most of what Waldman has published has been about motherhood, including the snappy books in her "Mommy-Track" mystery series. But while her nonfiction is often witty, her recent novels reflect the lingering agony of her decision to terminate a pregnancy after learning that her fetus carried a genetic defect. The mother in her previous novel, "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits" (2006), has lost her baby to SIDS. And now, "Red Hook Road" focuses on two mothers who lose their adult children on what was to be the happiest day of their lives.
I never realized it before, but my shelves are depressed by a wide range of fine novels about grief, a catalogue of smothered pain that includes Elizabeth Strout's "Abide With Me," Kiara Brinkman's "Up High in the Trees," Sue Miller's "Lake Shore Limited," Francine Prose's "Goldengrove" and even offbeat novels like Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," Stephen King's "Lisey's Story" and Reif Larsen's "The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet." Ask your friends what novel provided a sounding board for their sorrow, and you'll be surprised by how many shades of black there are.
Waldman's sharp eye for social detail makes her particularly good with the loneliness and awkwardness of modern grief. The abandonment of all those fussy Victorian customs along with the loss of any common religious vocabulary leave her characters wandering in a boundless but unacknowledged cloud of sadness, resenting neighbors' nervous platitudes ("The Lord don't give us more than we can bear") and empty, earnest questions ("How are you doing?"). The story, organized around the first three anniversaries of Becca and John's death, is a sobering reminder that when it comes to commemorating loss, we're all bumping around in the dark.
Waldman writes beautifully about "the persistence of love and work and affection in the face of sorrow," but what's impressive about "Red Hook Road" isn't limited to her thoughts on grief. 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. The bride's mother, Iris, is a fantastic creation -- prickly and demanding, so determined to control every aspect of life that she seems to be daring the gods to scuttle her plans. A professor of Holocaust studies at Columbia University, Iris is a brilliant, aggressive woman who has been meticulously rehabilitating her summer cottage and affirming her position in East Red Hook for decades. On the wedding day, Waldman explains, "all her hopes for the Grange Hall and for the place that she had made for herself in the village had reached their apotheosis. In this beautiful building first imagined and financed by her great-great-grandfather, her daughter would celebrate her marriage to a man whose roots in the town went deeper even than her own."
But there's the rub -- or the rube: Her counterpart, Jane, the groom's mother, is a flinty Mainer who used to clean Iris's house and grits her teeth at the professor's obnoxious presumptuousness. To Jane, even Iris's generosity seems infected with her desire to control everyone, an impression Iris senses but seems powerless to resist making. Waldman brings out the humor and the distress of their culture clash: "Jane had no interest in any relationship with Iris other than the most formal, her manner making Iris so uncomfortable that she inevitably found herself fulfilling what she imagined to be Jane's worst expectations of the fancy-pants New York from-away: frivolous, silly, and above all, condescending. When Iris spoke to Jane, her voice crept into a high, shrill register and she said the most absurd things. . . . It maddened Iris to find herself forced to act out the position of lady of the manor." But if marriage makes in-laws strange bedfellows, grief is an even more brutal matchmaker, and Waldman follows the awkward dance of these two bereft mothers over the next few years as they and their families try to negotiate the gaping hole in their lives.
Sadly, the end of the novel is a car wreck of a different sort, a sudden loss of narrative control that sends the story careening into melodrama and psychological breakthroughs. Until that point, though, Waldman keeps her eyes on the road, carrying us into dark territory with wisdom and grace. As usual, she offers something to admire and something to annoy -- something borrowed, something blue. Yes, it's an emotional workout, even if you don't usually cry at weddings, but it's worth attending for the more thoughtful reflections that linger after the bouquets have wilted.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.