When you reflect back on your life, there are certain events that you never forget. Births, weddings and deaths are among these. Beginnings and endings. The idea of death intruding on the sparkling optimism of a wedding isn't something I even want to allow myself imagine, so it was with trepidation that I listened to this audio. I went into it knowing there would be pain. Others who have read the book made assurances that hope outweighed grief, but I was skeptical.
Synopsis: Two families, one wealthy and one blue collar, one local and one From Away, come together on a cloudless Maine summer day to celebrate the wedding of John and Becca. Gossiping attendees, irritated relatives, a controlling mother of the bride, the father of the bride that brings two left dress shoes, a flower girl that forgets to throw the rose petals...predictable havoc. Only this day ends in tragedy...the bride and groom are killed in a car accident on the way to the reception.
The two families, neither whom like each other very much, and couldn't be more different, must struggle through their grief together and bury their children, the services held in the same church still bearing remnants of the wedding from days prior. Conflicts arise immediately, stemming from differences in religion, expenses and affordability, family plots, both sides playing the blame game and wrestling for the upper hand in a no-win situation.
Each summer, we revisit the families and get a glimpse of their grieving and healing. The battle of the mothers. The inability to get past the tragedy. The depression. The failing of a marriage. But there are shards of promise as well. A romance blossoms between John and Becca's siblings. Becca's grandfather, a professional`violinist and Holocaust survivor, finds a musical prodigy in John's niece and begins to tutor her. The two families begin to find common ground. The two families begin to move on.
My thoughts: I think that was a pathetic excuse for a synopsis. But I'm having trouble finding the right words to express the beauty and complexity of this story. Right out of the gate I'm going to tell you that this story is heart-breaking. I didn’t know John and Becca at the beginning of the story, so I felt sorrow at a distance. I was left amongst the survivors, who, as they went through the grieving process, reveal their memories of John and Becca as babies and toddlers, their antics, their personalities, how they met, their courtship, their dreams for the future. I felt the raw pain of the mothers, the fathers, the sister and brother, and I began to really hurt for their loss.
Then it became a complicated character study. John’s hard-working, no-nonsense mother Jane who resents the wealthy outsiders that invade her peaceful hometown. Becca’s father, Daniel, who turns to his old profession of boxing to get him through his darkest days. Iris, Becca’s headstrong mother, who painfully admits to herself that she always preferred her older daughter. Becca’s little sister Ruthie, a quiet, inward young woman who has only lived to please her mother. These fragile personalities struggle to make sense of John and Becca’s death, and try to move on with their lives while stumbling around blind and making serious mistakes along the way. Not all of them are likable, but are so very three-dimensional and resemble real people in all of our lives.
The colorful cast of characters isn’t the only thing competing for your attention and your heart in this story. Also playing a leading role is the small coastal town of Red Hook, Maine. The fresh lobsters, the local beer joint, the slow pace, and the community’s passion for sailing are things that you can almost smell and hear and taste as the words float by your eyes (or ears!).
All of this made an impact on me. I grieved with these folks, and slowly allowed myself to smile here and there as they found small pieces of joy. But what left me speechless and brought my thoughts back to the book for weeks after I finished, was the Coda. After becoming a part of the family, after developing a love for John and Becca through their relatives, Waldman takes us back to the last thirty minutes of their lives. The segment was almost dream-like; ghosts dancing on the beach, kissing and high on life. I had to go back and listen to it several times. It was masterful.
A few words about the audio production: Red Hook Road was narrated by Kimberly Farr, who is a veteran narrator (The 19th Wife, My Name is Mary Sutter, American Wife, My Life in France). She is pleasant to listen to and did a great job with various accents, including those wonderful Maine drawls. At just over 14 hours, this was neither too long nor too short…just right!
4.5 out of 5 stars