Coping: How tragedy forced two families to carry on

"Red Hook Road," by Ayelet Waldman. Doubleday, $25.95.

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With the careful attention of a movie director, Ayelet Waldman renders a panoramic scene of a wedding in the preface to her newest novel, "Red Hook Road." As a photographer tries to assemble everyone for a family photo, we see everything that the camera could not capture:

The flower girl tearfully looking for her basket, the groom's father behind the church smoking a cigarette and hung-over young guests.

This is our introduction to the as-yet-unnamed cast of characters in Red Hook, a picturesque seacoast town in Maine.

The second chapter brings us into the wedding reception and gives the characters names. Into the festively decorated Grange Hall intrude the police with the news that the bride and groom have been killed when their limousine crashed on its way to the reception. After that melodramatic setup, the rest of the novel explores the effects of this tragedy on members of each family.

Structuring the book around four consecutive summers mirrors the resort identity of the town and effectively shows time passing.

The bride and groom, portrayed as a golden couple, brought together two contrasting families -- the working- class Tetherlys, year-round residents of the town, and the privileged Copakens, Jewish New Yorkers who spend each summer in Red Hook.

Iris, the bride's mother, plays up her ancestral ties to the town, but most permanent residents still consider her an outsider. The differences between the two families play out in burial customs as well as in further interactions. By shifting points of view, Ms. Waldman gives us an inside look at how surviving members of each family process grief, from anger to bewilderment.

Although the novelist shows Jane, the groom's mother, ferociously cleaning houses for a living, she focuses mostly on the Copakens (to complicate things, they are among Jane's clients).

Iris, an accomplished professor accustomed to controlling everyone around her, falls apart when she is faced with a situation that she could not have possibly predicted. Her husband, Daniel, returns to boxing, a sport he loved before he was married, which propels him away.

Their surviving daughter questions the academic fast track her mother has pushed her to follow, falling, perhaps inevitably, into the arms of the groom's somewhat lost younger brother.

The character most equipped to withstand the tragedy is Iris' father, Emil Kimmelbrod, a Holocaust survivor who lost most of his family before he fled Europe and married a woman from Red Hook. Parkinson's disease has brought him to the end of a long and distinguished career as a violinist and music teacher, but his insights -- mostly kept to himself and beautifully understated -- give the story a depth and context lacking in the self-centered people around him.

Ms. Waldman, the wife of fellow novelist Michael Chabon, is at her best in lyrical descriptions, especially of the town. "At low tide the streambed was a bog of brackish mud, teeming with minnows in puddles and boulders drying white in the sun," she writes.

Her nuanced portrait of Iris keeps Iris from deserving the label of Ms. Waldman's controversial memoir, "Bad Mother." Yet some of the other characters, especially Jane, seem less fully realized.

After four summers pass, the characters do come to a fuller understanding of themselves and their place in the world, which is what you want them to do after a tragedy of this magnitude.

Clara Silverstein, a Pittsburgh native now based in Boston, directs the Chautauqua Writers Center.


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