book review: The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan
The backstory: The Red Book was longlisted for the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction.
The basics: The Red Book is the story of Clover, Addison, Mia and Jane, who were roommates Harvard, graduated in 1989 and continue to be friends, even though their lives are scattered across the country and the world. The novel takes is name from Harvard's Red Book, a tradition that every five years, before the reunion, where alumni craft an autobiographical essay of their life and current contact information. Set in 2009, these women reunite with their families for their twentieth reunion.
My thoughts: The novel opens with the actual Red Book entries of these women. I appreciated that introduction, and I think it helped keep them all straight, particularly when their spouses and children were also all introduced. There were times I doubted that these four women would actually be friends, but I think that's the the best thing about college friends: you become close with those you wouldn't later in life. Close proximity is a good thing.
Surprisingly for a book seemingly about friendship, I found its focus to be love, marriage and adultery. These four women are the crux of the story, but their different marriages highlight these themes. Kogan's writing shined at times:
"They had mythologized their origin story from its inception (high school sweethearts, the chance meeting, rekindled love) to the point where now, two decades later, it only made for compelling fiction, if barely."
Where the novel began to fall flat, however, was with how literal some of the characters felt. As each new section featured more Red Book pages, these superfluous details reminded me of the stories I used to write in middle school when I kept a sheet of paper with the name of the real people I described and what I'd changed their names to for this story. These minor characters felt real but not authentic. I imagined them as actual people, but the characters weren't well-developed, and they didn't add as much to the story as they distracted from the already large cast of characters.
Favorite passage: "Look, if there's anything worthwhile that you can take away from your mother and my story it is that humans need love. It's not a luxury. It's a necessity. And they'll endure extraordinary circumstances in order to get it."
The verdict: This tale of four college roommates included a plethora of other characters from their lives then and their lives now. Despite this broad cast, it was easy to keep the characters straight. While I wish some would been more developed and less one-dimensional, the ultimate lessons of friendship, love, life, marriage and death were moving, if sometimes overwrought.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 347 pages
Publication date: April 3, 2012
Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Red Book from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)
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