Monday, January 31, 2011

RED HOOK ROAD, by Ayelet Waldman

By Ayelet Waldman

Available here on Amazon.

I found RED HOOK ROAD a poignant novel. Like Waldman's earlier work, LOVE AND OTHER IMPOSSIBLE PURSUITS (FFT review here), her latest book also deals with relationships, heart wrenching loss, profound grief, and unexpected healing.

Our sorrows and wounds are healed
only when we touch them with compassion.

Class and cultural divides provide the fundamental basis for the characters of this book. The Copakens are Jewish, privileged, and summer residents. The Tetherlys are Protestant, blue-collar, and Maine natives. The story spans four years of summers spent in a typical small coastal town of Maine. Both families, stricken with unbearable grief, find themselves awkwardly charting the course of their intertwined lives after a fatal car accident takes the lives of their newlywed children.

The mother of the bride, Iris, whose family has summered in Maine for three generations, is a sophisticated New Yorker, a professor, and daughter of a renown classical violinist. Jane, mother of the groom, is a native Mainer who cleans houses for a living. Both strong women, the reader is taken close to the heart of a mother's loss of a child.

The wedding rehearsal dinner, an occasion of exquisite joy, was held the evening of July 4th at the Copaken summer home on the Maine shore. Now a painful year later, the bride's younger sister, Ruthie, wants to repeat that joyful evening with a 4th of July picnic complete with fireworks just as they had done the night before the fateful accident. "A celebration?" Yes, a celebration of Becca and John. We'd all be together and celebrate their lives." Frozen in grief, few others can muster enthusiasm for Ruthie's attempt to heal her broken heart and find a way to honor the memory of the deceased young couple.

Once Iris agrees to Ruthie's idea, she must take on the matter of convincing Jane to agree to attend the party. In an attempt to persuade Jane, Iris bakes one of her famous bundt cakes and arrives at Jane's kitchen with cake in hand. Food for Thought was abundant in this book, but with the dichotomy of the class and cultural differences it seemed appropriate to focus on the diverse offerings from the kitchens of Iris and Jane.

"Iris baked a lime pound cake. It was her most impressive cake; she used a Bundt pan embossed with a complicated pattern of grape clusters and vines. The cake baked up tall and golden brown, and the lime sugar glaze crackled tangy and sweet when you bit into it."

In stark contrast, Jane's cooking moment is her yearly 4th of July contribution of Nilla wafer pudding.

"Jane peeled back the plastic wrap from the Nilla wafer pudding. She had actually been looking forward to not being obliged to make the damn pudding this year, but then, when she had decided to come, she seemed to be unable to prevent herself. And so once again she had found herself standing in her kitchen, slicing four dozen bananas while staring at a sampler her mother-in-law had embroidered for her as a first anniversary gift, with its homely saying that had struck Jane, then as now, as an ironic if not overtly hostile comment on Jane's skill in the kitchen. "Bake a little love into every bite," it read, in letters once bright red and now faded to a murky pink. But the subsequent improvement in Jane's cooking had little to do with love. Baking was no different than anything else; there was a right and a wrong way to do it, and no room for forgiveness of one's mistakes. While she had waited for the meringue to brown in the oven, she had wondered if the bile, fury, and scorn she was baking into every bit of this particular Nilla wafer pudding would manage to affect its flavor."

Nilla wafer pudding was prominent in several passages of this book so it the seemed the most appropriate food connection.

Nilla wafer pudding brought back memories of my own childhood growing up in a small community. I don't recall that my mother ever made anything as exotic as a meringue topping on the banana puddings from her kitchen, but they were delicious.

I found the original Nabisco recipe for Nilla Banana Pudding here. It 's easy to make, and I have to say there was something refreshing about watching the pudding thicken as it cooked over the double boiler.

The meringue topping was definitely

the crowning glory for my taste buds!

Try it!

I'm not a voracious reader like most who share at FFT, and I'm ashamed to admit that this book lingered on my bedside table far too long before I opened its covers. Waldman is a master at character development and gives her readers an intimate look into the lives of those who fill the pages of her books. Her stories are love stories woven with honesty and the pain that many encounter when one loves deeply. A favorite quote I'll long remember from this work: "A long marriage, like a classic wooden boat, could be a thing of grace, but only if great effort was devoted to its maintenance."

Though RED HOOK ROAD is a story of tragic death, complicated relationships, and the painful journey of two families who must learn to cope with unbearable loss, don't be reluctant to read this one. Ayelet Waldman's writing offers up beautiful lessons to be gained, and there's plenty of Nilla wafer pudding in the offering.

Coastal Maine has long held a bit of mystique for me. It seems to be a far away world of rugged coastlines, wooden boats, lobster boils, and clam bakes. Perhaps a 4th of July spent at a summer house on the coast of Maine would be a nice change for this Texas girl.

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