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In this searing novel, a study of unbearable grief, two families are forever haunted by a fairy-tale wedding, described in a prelude, and a marriage that lasted barely an hour when the bride and groom died in a car crash. Twenty-six-year-old Becca Copaken, sunny, beautiful, athletic and musical, married her sweetheart of 10 years, John Tetherly, a yacht designer, and, not coincidentally, the son of a fierce, proud woman who cleans houses, among them the summer house of Becca's parents, Iris and Daniel.
Shared grief does not exactly bring the grieving parents together.
The Copakens are "from aways," vacationing in Red Hook, Maine, from their apartment in New York City, while John's mother, Jane, is one of the natives who rather disdain the foreigners.
All of the characters are acutely rendered. There is Iris, the super-competent woman who knows best what is good for everyone else; her unambitious husband, Daniel, who teaches at a mediocre law school, and their needy younger daughter Ruthie, who keeps sorrow at bay by studying to exhaustion at Harvard. The most poignant and memorable inhabitant of the novel is Iris' father, Emil Kimmelbrod, a semi-famous violin soloist whose advancing Parkinson's disease has silenced his beloved Guarneri. Having lost his entire family in the Holocaust, he has learned that there is "no apparent limit to the amount of grief a man could survive if he allowed inertia and the passage of time to push him through his days." A stoic if bitter realist, he tells Ruthie that "there is no logic to loss. There is no guiding hand allotting tragedy in bearable increments."
The survivors cope, or fail to, in unique ways. Daniel hides out in the gym, trying to relearn the boxing he'd been good at as a young man. Jane locks herself into furious and bitter grief. Ruthie and John's brother Matt abandon their academic plans and drop out of school. They turn themselves into an ersatz Becca and John. They begin a romance and Ruthie works at the library while Matt becomes obsessed with finishing John's project, the restoration of an old wooden boat.
Never mind that Matt knows nothing about boats, while Ruthie is afraid of the water. Iris and Emil make a project of Samantha, Jane's 9-year-old niece, who shows an uncommon musical gift. The two plan to turn her into a violin prodigy. Jane knows she should be grateful but deeply resents their do-gooder interference.
A freak storm erupts suddenly on the evening of the Copakens' annual July 4th picnic. But the climactic disaster it brings in its wake has the unpredictable consequence of mending the frayed human hearts of the novel's players. Like Samantha's blossoming, it hints that not only is survival possible, but that there is still hope for something like peace, even redemption.
One of the pleasures of the book is in its detailed description of work: boat building, boxing, teaching and learning music. Sometimes, it suggests, what saves us is the work of our stubborn hands.
Brigitte Frase is a writer and book critic in Minneapolis.