The Red Book

The titular Red Book is Harvard’s way to keep the alumni connected to each other. Every five years, graduates enter updates about their lives in anticipation of meeting again for their upcoming reunion. This book finds our four heroines (graduates of the Class of 1989) meeting up for their 20th year reunion.

You would think a book about four women who were the “best” of friends in college would involve lost of fun adventures with the gang, but this novel rarely puts all the women in the same room together on the weekend of their reunion. We never get the sense of their chemistry as friends (there are not Sex and the City diner sex talks or Desperate Housewives poker games). Instead, author Deborah Copaken Kogan weaves complicated and indulgent stories about four women who just happen to know each other.

All four women are facing cliché unhappiness in their lives, and the setting of their great, old school of Harvard teaches them to refocus what’s left of their lives on being happy. Addison is a spoiled housewife and wannabe artist in a loveless marriage who faces bankruptcy. Clover (the stock African American character) has rushed into a marriage with a man who doesn’t want to have kids, so she steals sperm from her college ex-boyfriend. Mia has a happy marriage to a famous film director and is raising four wonderful children, but her yearnings to return to the stage have cast doubts on her life choices. And plain Jane (a Vietnamese girl adopted by an American family who now lives in Paris), struggling with her mother’s recent death from cancer, learns that her mother, deceased husband, and all other men in her life have cheated on their spouses.

The first third of the book is a pure recounting of each character’s entire lives up to the point of the reunion. The book continues to weave remembrances and excessive inner monologues into the story to distract from the lack of action. Kogan uses these inner monologues to address her thoughts on current events—if you consider 2009 current—and various stances on morality and mortality. Though there are some great moments when Kogan’s critique of pop culture resonates, they are mostly lost in the convoluted storytelling.

It could be that I’m just too young to sympathize with these older women (it’s been 2 years since I graduated college, not 20), but nothing about these characters feels genuine. They come off as contrivances for a clichéd story about following your dreams. The entire plot of the book can be found in the opening and ending Red Book entries by the characters (don’t get me started on how the three annoying characters have happy endings and the one character I managed sympathy for gets a crapshoot of an ending).

The Red Book tries to be so much that if fails to be anything at all.