As one would expect in a novel about the 20-year reunion of the Harvard class of ’89, there’s a character called Bucky, children named Trilby and Dante, and protagonists on the cusp of 40 fretting over life choices, the loss of their younger selves, and the meaning of life half lived.
All are duly accounted for in Copaken Kogan’s smart and engaging, if formulaic, novel—an effort that owes a big debt to Mary McCarthy’s landmark 1963 novel The Group and a smaller one to The Big Chill. The title is taken from Harvard’s own “Red Book,” in which alumni update their personal bios every five years. It’s a clever literary premise, allowing a baseline to explore the disconnect between how characters want to be seen and how their lives have actually unfurled.
Action over three eventful days in 2009 focuses on four former roommates who’ve remained close despite divergent paths: the entitled Addison, a mother, wife and still-aspiring artist who lives in a Brooklyn loft buffeted by trust-fund money; the beautiful, biracial, commune-raised Clover recently let go from a big job at Lehman Brothers; Mia, a once-aspiring actress turned stay-at-home mom married to a Hollywood producer; and Jane, a Paris-based newspaper correspondent grappling with marital deception while grieving her mother’s death.
Copaken Kogan, a Harvard grad, captures the nuances of this privileged milieu with wry, insightful precision. True to the reunion genre, relationships are rekindled, secrets are revealed, new directions forged. Yet from a promising start, the plot bogs down with excess characters, pat observations and cringe-inducing coincidences. When Mia stumbles onto a campus audition that rekindles her theatrical ambitions, for instance, the play is Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The reader groans.
Still, as literate soap opera, The Red Book is entertaining, even if listening to Ivy League-educated women talk non-stop about motherhood and marriage can grate. It’s destined to be a book-club favourite among a huge female audience that never tires of strip-mining the lives of entitled women. To Copaken Kogan’s credit, she proves there’s still fertile ground to till.