Sunday, August 7, 2016

Devolution and Evolution

San Sebastian
My middle school friends are organizing a reunion and they seem to bask in the joy of reconnecting with their younger selves. Although their enthusiasm is commendable, I am so not keen to go to the reunion simply because I do not have to be reminded that I am growing older. Perhaps I am not so willing to participate in the charade that we are renewing our ties when for more than three decades since we left school we had not known what was actually going on in our individual lives. Where have all the years gone? Whenever we say that  age is just a number and that fifty is the new thirty while sixty is the new forty, we are just sugar coating reality. Some of us have had successful lives while others have had not so successful lives, nonetheless, almost all of us left school to live completely normal and ordinary lives.

The Red Book is a fiction written by Deborah Copaken Kogana, a  Harvard graduate, married with three children, a writer and a war photojournalist. The female characters in The Red Book are like that of the characters in Sex and the City.  Mia Mandelbaum Zane, Addison Cornwall Hunt, Jane Nguyen Streeter  and Clover Pace Love were college roommates at Harvard University and they graduated in 1989.  They return  to their campus in Cambridge for their 20th reunion. Every five years, the Harvard Alumni Association puts out class reports of their former students in the anniversary book known as  “The Red Book”.  The  hardbound crimson volumn contains the entries by the Harvard alumni who write a few paragraphs summarizing their lives during the past five years. There is always a story that we tell the world and the real story about dashed dreams, loss  and simply dreams we have to let go. The tradition of submitting class reports dates back to the mid 1800s and they get published and circulated within the Harvard fraternity. In a way, the exercise forces alumni to sit down and take stock of their lives every five years and account for themselves. 

Mia is married to Jonathan who is a film director making romantic comedies with all of those wedding photos under the closing credits. Mia used to be a promising actress. While she declares her supreme satisfaction with motherhood, she becomes angry when she meets a less talented classmate who has become a major celebrity.

Kogana writes,

We are all stars of our own  movies, he tells his children, but we are also its writer, creator, and narrator. ( “ Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Max will interrupt , playfully, “and it’s our God-given duty to make it interesting. Got it, Dad. Check on the life well spent. Now can we clear our plates and have dessert?” ) Jonathan imagines the tracking shot of this scene, the camera on a dolly following him down the road, the human figure kept consistently center frame until the last possible moment, when the rig should fly up on a jib for a more bird’s –eye view as the man slips out of the frame.’

In the story, to the outside world, Jonathan has done extraordinarily well as a film director. At age 61,  he suddenly struggles with meaning and what kind of mark he wants to leave on the world.

Addison is an artist who hasn’t really created any art in years and she spends her years looking after the three children she has with her writer husband who is trying to write his second novel.  Clover  is recently married to a lawyer husband  and she is desperate for a baby but her husband refuses to have a fertility test.  Jane is a journalist living and working in Paris and she is coming to terms with the death of her adoptive mother and her husband. 

Deborah Copaken Kogan clickhere is observant about the realities of life and as the novel spans over the three-day reunion, she is good in connecting the past to the present. The Red Book is about friendship, dreams,  infidelity, motherhood, sexuality  and mortality. There is a lot going on so much so that at some points, there is just too much going on. The novel is an interesting read if you like a good saga.
In life, there are always compromises to be made as we cannot have it all. The reality is even a Harvard education can never prepare one for the real life that is about earning your keep, living well, navigating a marriage, parenting and surviving illnesses and failed ventures.The Red Book shows that very few graduates live up to their potentials even if they go to Harvard. It is also about how we all sacrifice our true selves for the sake of a life that we think we should have in the hope that we can finally find harmony and balance between what we really want to do with our life and who we have become.

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