Deborah Copaken Kogan’s novel takes its title from the Harvard Red Book that every Harvard grad receives in reunion years. The Harvard book is filled with updates from alumni who choose to share information about their addresses, emails, spouse/partners, children and activities of the preceding five years. Red Books — and their equivalents at peer institutions — are brag books of sorts, as inflated entries can easily push less overtly accomplished alumni into a sea of self-doubt.
That’s what makes Kogan’s novel so much fun. She dissects the Red Book entries to show how her clutch of graduates are really doing twenty years after their 1989 Harvard commencement. Sure to be compared with Mary McCarthy’s genre classic, The Group, Kogan’s group of roommates — Addison, Mia, Jane, and Clover — look like poster children for their class to those perusing their Red Book entries.
Uber-WASP artist Addison lives with her novelist husband and three children in a spacious Williamsburg, Brooklyn loft. Clover Love, a managing director at Lehman Brothers, has finally found her “soul mate” and married him. Mia, a one-time actress, is the mother of three strapping sons and an infant daughter and the wife of a Hollywood director. Jane is a Paris-based reporter for The Boston Globe. This group of women seem pretty intimidating when introduced by their Red Book entries.
During course of their reunion weekend their lives are exposed. Addison really is a lesbian — that college fling wasn’t an aberration. It’s 2009 and the inherited wealth that has let her family live their posh boho lifestyle has gone up in Madoff-type smoke. Her reunion weekend doesn’t start well: she spends the night in jail because of unpaid parking fines left over from her college days. Clover is an unemployed casualty of the Lehman Brothers collapse — and wonders why her old Harvard flame can still spark her interest. Mia confronts postponed acting ambitions while remaining unaware of her family’s financial woes. For Jane, rocked by the discovery of her recently deceased adoptive mother’s adultery, the weekend is an occasion to decide whether she can forgive her own partner for a single act of infidelity.
Kogan understands the catalytic role of old friendships:
Sometimes. . . it takes someone who knew you back when to illuminate the missing you here and now, a blacklight beamed over invisible ink, a fresh set of eyes that haven’t witnessed the decades of self-deception, a new set of ears that were not privy to the steady, insistent drumbeat: I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine. . .
She writes convincingly of the bittersweet realities of encroaching middle age, cataloging:
. . . the disappointments, the broken vows, the friends and family laid to rest; the loves lost, the pounds gained, the compromises and the sad surprises and the football-size lemons swallowed whole.
By turns funny and wise, The Red Book is the perfect back story to lives imperfectly chronicled in a Harvard reunion Red Book. Grab it as you head for your reunion!
The Red Book is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.