The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan
Published by Voice ISBN 9781401341992
Trade paperback, $15.99, 384 pages
I had never heard of Harvard's Red Book before I recently read Deborah Copaken Kogan's novel, The Red Book. Every five years, Harvard compiles a book filled with short essays written by each graduate, sharing what they have been up to in the past five years.
The actual Red Book made headlines recently when infamous graduate Ted Kazcynski, the man known to the world as the Unabomber, returned his questionnaire listing his occupation as 'prisoner' and under the awards section, wrote 'eight life sentences', and his entry was included in the book, angering many people including his victims' families.
None of this has anything to do with Kogan's book, but perhaps the timely story will bring some publicity to this wonderful novel. Kogan takes the popular concept of four female protagonists (Little Women, Sex & the City, J. Courtney Sullivan's 2011 novel Maine), and adds a dash of The Big Chill (one of my favorite movies) that brought me to tears by the end of this emotional story.
Cleverly using the conceit of the Red Book, she introduces her four main characters with their 20 year entries. Sometimes books with multiple protagonists can lead to confusion keeping everyone straight, and by introducing in this manner, that problem is solved.
We are thrust into the lives, their marriages, their children, their careers, what they have been doing since college. Addison has put her career as an artist on hold to raise her three children and support her husband, a writer who doesn't seem to do much writing (or any parenting).
Clover was a huge success at Lehman Brothers, until they went under. Now she is unemployed and trying unsuccessfully to have a child with her husband, a Legal Aid attorney.
Mia went to LA after college to try and make it as an actress. She met an older man, Jonathan, a successful director and they have four children and a good life, with homes in LA and the Antibes. She and Jonathan are deeply in love, but what she doesn't know is that they took a big financial hit during the recession.
Jane is a reporter for the Boston Globe, based in France. Her first husband was killed while reporting in Afghanistan. She has a daughter with him and is now living with her husband's best friend. Her adopted mother recently passed away after a long illness, and Jane is bereft.
The four women all meet up again at the 20th reunion, bringing their families with them, except for Clover. Clover runs into an old flame and has a plan that unwittingly involves him. Addison ends up in serious trouble for unpaid parking tickets and her old lover, a wealthy woman, comes to rescue.
Jane is trying to decide whether to move back to the United States to write a novel, and has to face infidelities from her partner. Mia wants to return to acting.
Being back in Cambridge brings back memories for all of them, and causes some of them to reflect on their regrets, the things they should have done. The story culminates at a memorial service for a classmate, and all of the emotions of the weekend coming crashing down around them.
I really liked the relationship between Mia and Jonathan. Their marriage is solid and loving, and the scene where Jonathan comforts an upset Jane is so tender and moving.
Two of the families have teenage children, and a romance between them ensues. Kogan writes the scenes with the teens with empathy and insight, and I liked that the kids weren't one-dimensional. Their story was important as well.
Some books you love right away, this was one that took me awhile to get into, but by the end, when Kogan takes a character down a road that I was not happy about, I actually said "NO!" when I saw it coming, and almost cursed her. That is how much I was invested in this story, in this particular character. I love getting lost in a good story, and I was enveloped in this engrossing book.
My husband loves movies where at the end they tell you what happens to the characters, and this novel ends like it begins: we read the 25th anniversary report and find out how things have turned out.
rating 4 of 5
Deborah Copaken Kogan was long listed for the Orange Prize for fiction for The Red Book.