As lyrical as a sonata, Ayelet Waldman's follow-up novel to Love and Other Impossible Pursuits explores the aftermath of a family tragedy.
Set on the coast of Maine over the course of four summers, Red Hook Road tells the story of two families, the Tetherlys and the Copakens, and of the ways in which their lives are unraveled and stitched together by misfortune, by good intentions and failure, and by love and calamity.
A marriage collapses under the strain of a daughter's death; two bereaved siblings find comfort in one another; and an adopted young girl breathes new life into her family with her prodigious talent for the violin. As she writes with obvious affection for these unforgettable characters, Ayelet Waldman skillfully interweaves life's finer pleasures--music and literature--with the more mundane joys of living. Within these resonant pages, a vase filled with wildflowers or a cold beer on a hot summer day serve as constant reminders that it's often the little things that make life so precious.
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July 13, 2010
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Excerpt from Red Hook Road by Ayelet Waldman
The house in East Red Hook, a village a few miles outside the town of Red Hook proper, was a flight of Queen Anne fancy, with a witch-hat turret, obsessive gingerbread, multihued brickwork and tile, and a secret room hidden behind a bookcase. It was builtin 1879 by a gentleman named Elias Hewins, to the precise specifications of his much younger bride. Elias had purchased the acres of rolling oceanfront meadow for a song from a farmer who'd finally given up on coaxing anything edible from the obdurate Mainesoil. Elias had sited his new house to make the most of its view across East Red Hook's small cove, out to the tiny islands scattered along the Eggemoggin Reach like crumbs on a wide blue tablecloth. Elias's son Nathaniel was born, lived, and died in the house,then passed it on to his six adult children, all of whom had long since abandoned the Maine coast. Only Nathaniel's youngest child, his only daughter, possessed the resources and the inclination to return to East Red Hook from New York City, where her husbandhad moved her. She transformed the house where she was born into her summer home, and for decades thereafter she and her daughter Alice passed their summers in the village, with Alice's father visiting as often as his business interests would allow. In thesummer of 1940, when Alice was twenty-six years old, already in the eyes of her parents an old maid, she met a young violinist, a Jewish refugee from Prague, whose exile had landed him in, of all places, Red Hook, where he was performing with the town's renownedsummer chamber music program, at the Usherman Center. After a brief courtship, Alice married Emil Kimmelbrod, and the couple bought their own summer house, down the road in Red Hook. Their high-spirited little daughter, Iris, spent the better part of everysummer at her grandmother's, where she was free to run and play without concern for the silence demanded by her father's rigorous practice schedule.
If they thought of it at all, Iris and her parents assumed that Iris's grandmother had either bought out her siblings, the five sons of Nathaniel Hewins, or had inherited their shares in the house as in turn they died, but upon the old woman's death itwas revealed that no such formal transfers of ownership had ever taken place. Iris's grandmother left her not the ramshackle old summer house but rather only the one-sixth share that was hers to bequeath. It took Iris nearly seven years to track down everylast one of the twenty-nine heirs, some of whom had no idea that their origins lay in a harborside village of white clapboard, blueberry bogs, and lobster boats on the Down East coast of Maine. Most of the heirs were willing to sign away their claim to therotting and sagging old house in return for their small fraction of its fair market value. But one cantankerous second cousin twice removed, a Texan, refused to sign a quit claim until Iris offered him significantly more than the $443 that was his share. Overthe objections of her husband, Daniel, who, while he enjoyed Maine well enough, felt no ties to the land or the house that would justify such an expense, Iris wrote her distant cousin a check for $3,000. As soon as the deed was clear, she began the renovations,which were to consume her time and energy for years of summers to come. Her projects were so numerous and her plans so intricate that until the last moment there had been some concern that the latest work--adding a shower to the downstairs powder room--wouldnot be finished in time for the wedding of Iris's daughter Becca to John Tetherly, the son of the woman who had been coming to clean the house since before the death of Iris's grandmother.
Elias Hewins had nurtured pretensions of being a gentleman farmer, and not long after he built the house, he deeded a small strip of adjoining land to the local chapter of the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. The Grange had constructedon the land a simple structure, with long, narrow, shutterless windows, a front room large enough for a town meeting, a tiny branch of the large library in Red Hook in back, and a kitchen. For generations the Grange Hall was a center of village life, but bythe time Iris took possession of her house it was little more than a hollow shell forgotten by the village that owned but neglected it. The hall's fixtures, including its cast-iron woodstove, were long since lost to vandals and unscrupulous antique hunters,and the library was in use for only the three months of summer.
To Iris the Grange Hall was as much a part of her family's legacy as was her own house. More, perhaps, because while the house where she had spent her childhood making noise away from the hush that obtained at her parents' cottage was her home, the GrangeHall was her connection to the village itself, a symbol of the integral part her ancestors had played in the communal life of this sliver of Maine coast. Although for the past few generations they had been coming only as summer visitors, the existence of theGrange Hall proved that before that they had been Mainers. Their mortal remains populated an entire neighborhood in the town cemetery. There was a Hewins Pond, and a Hewins Road, and one found the name written not only on headstones in the cemetery but underportraits of long-dead deacons in church halls, in birth and marriage rolls, over the doorway of one of the oldest commercial buildings in town, and on the pedestals of monuments to the dead of Bull Run, Ypres, and Iwo Jima.
She knew there was probably something absurd about it, but this record in stone and paper of her belonging to Red Hook was critical to Iris's sense of herself, of her place in the world. Half of her history derived from a part of Europe that no longerexisted, a vanished land of thirteenth-century synagogues, of cemeteries with thousand-year-old graves carved with Hebrew lettering. This side of her heritage was as lost to her as were her father's parents and siblings, killed at Terezin, and thus the Maineside, the Red Hook history, took on greater importance. Red Hook might only have been her summer residence--the rest of her life had been passed on the Upper West Side of the island of Manhattan--but her roots went deep into this rock. She had planted her daughtershere, like perennials that bloomed every summer. Even her husband, a transplant less suited, perhaps, to the climate and the land, had, she thought, laid down his own, albeit shallow, roots.
After she took title to her ancestral home, Iris, with her customary energy and passion, took on the project of restoring the Grange Hall, applying to the state for grants, organizing rummage and bake sales, hosting bean suppers, and petitioning her neighbors,summer visitors and local people, to donate toward the hall's renovation. In the end, she'd dipped deep into her and Daniel's savings, one of the reasons that they were still making do with an ancient, unreliable furnace long after the Grange Hall had resumedits service to the village as an all-purpose gathering space.
Today 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 hermarriage to a man whose roots in the town went deeper even than her own.
Last week, John, Becca, and a gang of their friends had repainted the Grange Hall, and the brilliant white paint shone fresh and promising of all the renewal that summers in Maine had always meant to Iris and her daughters. Yesterday the bridesmaids hadpicked hundreds of flowers and woven fragrant garlands to festoon the wood banisters leading up the porch steps and around the front door. The hall was a riot of purple, violet, lavender--shades of Becca's favorite color. How the girls had managed to gatherso many lupines this late in the season, Iris couldn't imagine. Early this morning, Iris had filled the room with votive candles, setting them in circles on every table and in long glimmering rows on the windowsills.
The feeling she and Becca had been going for in decorating both the Grange Hall and the Unitarian church was a kind of rustic opulence, at once simple and glorious. Profusions of fresh flowers in hand-tied bouquets tucked into mismatched china vases, whitewooden folding chairs looped with garlands, place cards written not by a calligrapher but in their own hands. She and Becca had scoured the thrift shops and rummage sales for the white lace tablecloths that were draped over the twenty round tables. The caterer,a summer visitor who served with Iris on the library board, had designed a simple but elegant meal. Organic produce from nearby farms, beef and pork from a local man who did his own slaughtering, bread and rolls baked by the local food co-op, lettuces fromIris's own vegetable garden, and a wedding cake made by a friend of the groom's who had recently received his certificate in culinary arts from Central Maine Community College.
The caterer had obviously managed to get the range lit, because the waiters were making the rounds with the miniature crab cakes, sliders, and lobster puffs. The guitarist of the band due to play later in the evening began warming up the crowd with a preludeby Robert de Visee. Trust Becca to find a blues band fronted by a classical guitarist, Iris thought.
Iris glanced up at the ceiling and frowned. One of the strings of white Christmas lights draped over and through the rafters had come loose; if it dropped any lower it was liable to get tangled in someone's hair. Iris's eyes skated over the crowd, searchingout her husband. Daniel Copaken was standing on the other side of the room, his hands shoved deep in his pockets, rocking back and forth on his heels. She caught his eye and beckoned him over with a raised eyebrow. He picked his way through the crowd, stoppingto shake a few proffered hands and bending over to receive a kiss on the cheek from one of their elderly neighbors.
"It looks great in here," he said, when he finally reached her.
"It does, if I may say so myself," Iris said. "But look up there." She pointed at the strand of wire hanging from the rafter. "The lights are fall_ing down."
Daniel patted his pockets for the glasses he had forgotten on his nightstand. He squinted up at the misbehaving lights. "No problem," he said, climbing up on a chair. Daniel was a boxer when he and Iris met--a Golden Gloves middleweight with more thana few wins under his belt--and though he had grown thick around the middle, the muscles beneath his skin more like mere flesh and less like chunks of Red Hook granite, his broad shoulders still strained the fabric of his jacket, and after thirty years he wasstill in possession of the grace that had made him a formidable opponent in the ring. He sprang up from the chair and caught hold of the rafter, then chinned himself high enough to hook his left arm over the top of it while he grabbed hold of the wayward stringof lights with his right. Then he paused, momentarily flummoxed.
"Hey, Iris," he said. "You wouldn't happen to have a tack on you?"
"A tack? No."
"Shit." He hung there in the middle of the air a moment, studying the problem of the string of lights with total absorption, seemingly unaware of the spectacle he was making. As ridiculous as it was for a man in a wedding suit to be swinging through theair like a middle-aged Spiderman impersonator, Iris couldn't help but admire the shape of his body, the line of his trapezius muscles beneath his smooth cotton shirt. In the end Daniel looped the string a few times over the rafter, and then tied the end toit as well as he could with one hand.
"Move that chair, would you?" he said.
Iris returned the chair to the table from which it had come, and Daniel swung a moment longer, then dropped to the ground with a lightness that was surprising in a such a solidly built man. The guests who were near enough to have observed his gymnasticdemonstration called out their appreciation. Mary Lou Curran, an older woman, a summer visitor who had chosen to retire in the cottage she, like Iris, had inherited from her grandparents, applauded. Daniel took a slight bow.
"I guess I wore the right shoes after all," Daniel said, holding up one bright white-sneakered foot.
"Yes, I guess you did," Iris said, trying with all her heart to mean it.