I first read about The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan via a review on The FT where the plot caught my attention.
Four former female Harvard roommates – members of the class of ‘89 – are about to attend their 20th reunion. Obviously such a meeting involves some kind of life assessment which has the potential to lead to unpleasant realisations as the characters are reminded of whether and how their dreams have materialised or faded away.
When you are a Harvard alumna, a place where the bar is set so high, the tension between keeping up appearances and being true to thine own self is bound to generate some kind of frustration and unhappiness.
As the plot unfolds and shifts from one character to the next, we gradually get more insights into their lives during the past twenty years.
When Mia graduated from Harvard, she had hoped to be an actress but one child led to the next and she is now the stay-at-home mum of three poised sons and a baby daughter. She is married to Jonathan, a successful but much older Hollywood director, and they have a house in California and one on the French Riviera. Mia is active at her local chapter of Planned Parenthood and in the soup kitchen of their synagogue.
Clover has only recently got married. She used to work in the mortgage backing department of Lehman brothers until the company went bankrupt. Currently she is unemployed and living off her past earnings. She is currently struggling with fertility issues. Half-black and half-white, Clover comes from a very different kind of background. She lived with her mother on a commune with hippies and as a result was witness to all sorts of very-70s experiences and was home-schooled until entering Harvard.
Addison comes from a very privileged background; generations of people who have attended Harvard. She had planned to be an artist and had a significant relationship with a woman before deciding to marry into her own social sphere and have children. Her husband is a narcissistic writer who has only ever written one book. They live off of their trust funds though she has recently discovered that this money has been mismanaged. Parenting doesn’t come naturally to Addison and she rarely sets limits to her children who have turned out to be rather wild and unpleasant teenagers. Her marriage is in dire straits and the couple have reached a point where they can no longer stand each another.
Jane is of Vietnamese descent and still has to make sense of her fractured world.. She saw her whole family die during the Vietnam war. An American army doctor decided to adopt her and she was raised lovingly by him and his wife though he died very soon after she arrived in the US. Currently, Jane lives in France and is a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe. Her first husband was a reporter and was killed during an assignment in Afghanistan leaving a daughter, Sophie, behind. She is now living with Bruno, her husband’s best friend. But when she learns that her deceased husband, her current lover, and her deceased mother all had affairs, she is forced to face realities she’d rather have ignored.
The title refers to the Harvard Red Book, a book which is published every five years by the Alma Mater and sent to its alumni. Each former student sends in a personal update a few months before publication which then becomes an entry in the Book.
The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan is a well-written and engaging book. The characters feel true-to-life; they are people I could identify with or recognise. I think this might be the case for a lot of educated women who attended college some time ago and believed then that options were unlimited.