For most people, their wedding day is one of the most joyful days of their lives. For me, even though my first marriage ended in divorce, I still have fond memories of the wedding that brought us together as a family for the short time we lasted. But for Becca and John, the young couple who get married at the beginning of Red Hook Road, their happy day becomes a nightmare when they are killed in a car crash on the way to their reception.
For a marriage that only lasted an hour, Becca and John's union had a lot of power over the other people in their lives, which becomes evident as the story follows Iris (Becca's mom), Daniel (her dad), Jane (John's mother), Matt (his brother) and Ruthie (Becca's sister) in the years following their deaths. Set during four summers in the small coastal Maine Town of Red Hook, the book details the way that each person struggles to deal with their loss. Iris is an East Coast intellectual a professor of English literature who lives in New York most of the year, but who strongly identifies with her family's connection to the old beach house where they have summered for three generations. She is like a force of nature, strong and willful, and her sometimes overwhelming personality causes her children, her husband, and the other people she loves to be at once awed and intimidated by her. Daniel, who has always found it easy to let Iris plot the course of their lives, suddenly finds himself frustrated and resentful at her attempts to control everything that happens in the aftermath of the tragedy. Jane, John's mother, is a local woman who was never comfortable with her son's relationship with a privileged daughter "from away", and resists any attempt my Iris to continue their families' connection after the young people are killed. Ruthie and Matt each try to live up to their older siblings' examples in their own ways, but find following in the footsteps of those who have passed on before their time more difficult than they anticipated.
The book examines issues of death and loss, dealing with grief, and privilege. John was a shipbuilder, and the old boat that John was restoring at the time of his death, which Matt takes over afterward, becomes a symbol of the group's collective experience-mainly, that of being stuck, unable to move on with the task of living their own lives, so mired are they in trying to honor and remember the dead. Each character must go off the the trail a bit to eventually find their footing-Iris, through a young musical prodigy; Daniel through revisiting his young adult self; Ruthie by re-examining her assumptions about what her own path should be; and Matt through coming to grips with his feelings of guilt and inadequacy. The relationship between Iris and Jane highlights the differences between two very different kinds of mother, but in the end their strong love for their children brings them together, if not into an easy friendship, at least into mutual respect. Red Hook Road is not the best family drama I've read, but it does have an easy readability about it that makes is accessible to even the casual reader.