Thursday, August 26, 2010

Red Hook Road

I'm entertained by Ayelet Waldman.

When I first read Bad Mother a few years ago, I was charmed by her tone and her wide, confessional sweep--enough that I said so to her, and got a characteristically open response. Since then I've followed her ups and downs--which are higher and lower than most peoples'--until I read that she'd published a new book of fiction. Now, I'd already had a bad experience with reading fiction by a confessional essayist I loved (Anne Lamott) and wasn't anxious to repeat the experience. Curiosity won out, however, and I'm glad to report that the experience wasn't the same. I'm not going to say that I prefer Waldman's fiction; just that I'm pretty much going to enjoy anything she writes.

Why? Mostly it's tone. I loved the parts of Red Hook Road that explain the relationship between an academic who lives in Manhattan for nine months out of the year and a local who cleans her house year-round. It is pretty nearly pitch perfect, as far as I can tell, and I'm someone who is acquainted with lots of academic women and a few of the women who clean their houses.

The tone of the section in which a father has to pick out a casket for his daughter also struck me, as he thinks that his wife would ask
"what, exactly, the point was of 'lasting quality' in an item whose very purpose was to decompose?"

The way the characters think of and try to anticipate each other is another charm of the novel--the third-person point of view shifts the focus from one character to another so that you sympathize with each one, in turn, although the academic, Iris, seems to me to get a little more time than the other characters. As a mother, seeing the conflict that this woman has with her surviving daughter was agonizing--I could see both of their points of view, but despite, that, knew that my reaction would be the same as this mother's and that my daughter would (will someday?) react the same way:
"Ruthie had ached to talk about her anxiety with her mother, to ask her for advice, but while Iris had greeted Matt's plan with studied nonchalance, Ruthie knew how intensely she disapproved. Any apprehension Ruthie expressed would be greeted with relief. There would be no opportunity for the unbiased consideration of the options that she actually sought."

The sympathetic portrait of Iris culminates in her husband's analysis of her personality after he's left her:
"Iris had always been like that...loyal to a fault. She was that way with everyone she loved, tenacious in her defense of them, absolute in her allegiance. This was the other side of her bossiness, her pushiness. She always thought she knew what was best for you, always tried to force you to comply, but she did it because she wanted the best for you."
This describes not only me, but also several of my academic friends, women who aren't casual about much, but bring an intensity to everything they do.

The way the story ends is pretty sentimental and contrived, but I enjoyed it anyway. There's a boat-building/violin playing metaphor that runs all the way through the novel, and it leads to a sappy paragraph about marriage:
"That was true... about marriage: it was only a boat, too. A wooden boat, difficult to build, even more difficult to maintain, whose beauty derived at least in part from its unlikelihood. Long ago the pragmatic justifications for both marriage and wooden-boat building had been lost or superseded. Why invest countless hours, years, and dollars in planing and carving, gluing and fastening, caulking and fairing, when a fiberglass boat can be had at a fraction of the cost? Why struggle to maintain love and commitment over decades when there were far easier ways to live, ones that required no effort or attention to prevent corrosion and rot? Why continue to pour your heart into these obsolete arts? Because their beauty, the way they connect you to your history and to the living world, justifies your efforts."

Yes, this is a book written to appeal especially to a long-married woman of my age and avocation. I can't tell you that you'll like it, too, but I should think that any reader will at least enjoy the part when Iris' daughter, working at a library, recommends Pride and Prejudice to a patron who has been checking out Regency romances and converts her to an Austen fan.

6 comments:

Jenny said...

I just finished Bad Mother yesterday and was trying to decide if I wanted to give Waldman's fiction a try. A good essayist does not necessarily a good novelist make (sadly), but Red Hook Road sounds worth a try. Thanks for the review! :)

Trapunto said...

Um. What kind of marriage is a fiberglass boat?

Florinda said...

I've read some of Waldman's previous fiction and liked it, but not as much as I loved Bad Mother, so I was a little nervous about Red Hook Road (because I know exactly what you mean about Anne Lamott). I was pretty impressed with it, though.

I was reading the scene you referenced - Ruthie in the library - while at physical therapy, and the PT assistant was reading it over my shoulder (while she did soft-tissue work on it). She enjoyed that bit too.

Jeanne said...

Jenny, Good novelists seem to me less rare than good essayists.

Trapunto, I think the fiberglass boat is a first wife, or a trophy wife. The one who leaves when she gets tired of picking up the bathmat off the floor for the thousandth time, or the one who hasn't heard all the jokes before and finds the teller fascinating.

Florinda, I'm glad to know someone agrees with me about Anne Lamott! Love the reading PT session.

Nymeth said...

I love the boat metaphor. And I wonder if there even ARE easier ways to live. On our own, I guess, but that doesn't seem to suit most people, and any relationship that is worth it (romantic or not) WILL take work. I had a terrible encounter with a movie that promoted the myth of love-is-easy-when-you-find-The-One earlier this week, so I've been pretty incensed about these things :P

And I must read Bad Mother.

Jeanne said...

Nymeth, I think one of the things reading Tolkien (among others) teaches us is that the easy way isn't always the best way.