Every year or so, an article appears in a high-profile publication about the evolving mores of privileged women — their penchant for tiger mothering, say, or the fact that they love their husbands more than their children — and a cultural tempest ensues. I am exactly the kind of person (female, educated, judgmental) who devours such articles, then discusses them with my similarly educated, judgmental sisters and girlfriends. And yet I’m not sure it’s a compliment to say that Deborah Copaken Kogan’s novel “The Red Book” is a lot like one of those journalistic provocations.
Kogan’s premise is in equal measures clever and nauseating: Four roommates from Harvard University’s Class of 1989 (Clover, Addison, Jane and Mia) have returned to campus for their 20th reunion. The titular red book is the one published in advance of every five-year reunion, in which Harvard graduates write a few paragraphs summarizing their lives. The novel’s overlapping plots are fueled by the discrepancy between these summaries and the truth of the four friends’ experiences. Addison, for example, is a WASP with money problems, a painter who doesn’t paint and a closeted lesbian married to a man. But what you’d mostly glean from her red book submission is that she’s a good-naturedly harried mother of three who’s finally mastering QuarkXPress and Photoshop.
Wisely, Kogan chooses to include the four friends’ “actual” red book entries, as well as those of about a dozen of their classmates. These entries are the novel’s greatest strength, and I consider myself an authority. I was first exposed to such a volume when I was in eighth grade. My father’s Princeton University class book arrived in the mail shortly before his 20th reunion, and I read it cover to cover.
So I have to acknowledge that Kogan — who grew up in the D.C. area and graduated from Harvard in 1988 — perfectly captures the alternately braggy, self-effacing, resilient tone of these brief autobiographies: “We spend our winters skiing at our house in Zermat” vs. “Three years ago, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I have good days and bad days, but mostly I try just not to dwell on it.”
Unfortunately, “The Red Book” falters when it ventures outside the red book itself. Kogan’s writing is at its best enjoyably breezy but at its worst glib. She tells her story from an omniscient third-person point of view, and none of the four roommates feels truly inhabited. They are amalgams of traits — a commune child who grew up to be a managing director at Lehman Brothers, an aspiring actress turned wealthy stay-at-home mother — more than fully realized individuals.
Of the four women, Addison and Mia are white, Jane (also known as Ngoc) is a Vietnamese war orphan adopted by American parents, and Clover is the daughter of a white father and a black mother, yet the treatment of race never seems more than perfunctory. And I didn’t viscerally sense the friendship among the women, the closeness that has kept them in one another’s lives for 20 years, though there is a genuinely sweet and moving scene in which two of the friends’ teenage children lose their virginity to each other (and, thereby, horrify their parents).
Each woman undergoes a transformative experience at the reunion, but the transformations aren’t convincing. Childless Clover, who believes that her new husband’s deficient sperm is the reason she hasn’t gotten pregnant, impulsively sleeps with a college boyfriend in hopes that he’ll solve the problem. (It’s easier to believe she’d do this than that she’d do it without any forethought.) Meanwhile, foreign correspondent Jane is approached by a classmate who turns out — small world! — to have been Jane’s dead husband’s mistress in Afghanistan. Again, it’s not impossible that the mistress would divulge this secret, but the conversation in which she does is utterly improbable. (There are also so many cheating spouses in these pages that infidelity loses its potency as a plot twist and becomes repetitive.)
Kogan seems hellbent on revealing that everyone is living a lie — the only question is whether the characters know it. I found it refreshing that one red book entry is by George, who earned a PhD from Oxford before ending up owning a Subaru dealership in Pawtucket, R.I., but writes that he’s attained “a sense of peace and well-being I never realized existed.” Alas, a later scene reveals that George’s unsophisticated wife is an avid scrapbooker and a bigot (it’s not clear which Kogan deems worse) and that she avoids sex with George. Similarly, Mia’s red book entry, in which she eloquently discusses the rewards of having given up a career to stay home with her children, is later undermined by her acknowledgment that thinking about not having pursued acting “plunges her into despair.”
To fault a novel set at a Harvard reunion for fetishizing elitism is, I suppose, like complaining that salmon tastes fishy. Kogan doesn’t go as far in the direction of Ivy worship as she could, but an early passage that provides footnote definitions for various preppy proper nouns (for example, “Brearley”: “The Brearley School, a selective, academically rigorous, private girls’ school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan”) raises the question of who the imagined audience of this book is.
And, yet, despite my frustrations with it, I’m sure I’ll end up discussing “The Red Book” with my friends; maybe I’ll even buy copies for a few of them so we can discuss its zeitgeisty panache. Surely, this means that Kogan, that wily Harvard grad, has done something right.
Sittenfeld’s next novel, “Earthquake Season,” will be published in 2013.
The Red Book
By Deborah Copaken Kogan
Voice. 347 pp. $24.99