Thursday, October 20, 2011

Caryl reads: The Red Book

Someone recently gave me the galleys of a novel that comes out next spring called “The Red Book”. The reason for this unanticipated gift was because of my fascination with all things Harvard. (More about that later). The eponymous Red Book, for those unfamiliar with this tome, is a collection of short essays (three to five paragraphs is the suggested length), prompted by the Harvard alumni office and written by former students summing up their professional and personal accomplishments over the previous half-decade. These mini-memoirs are then published in a hard-bound book with a bright red cover and poured over by those who contributed (and those who declined) to see how they measure up against the only meaningful cohort—their classmates from the same year.

Author Deborah Copaken Kogan (Harvard, Class of ‘88) uses fictional entries from the red book as a structural prop to follow four Harvard women and their classmates as they come together for their 20th reunion weekend in June, 2009. Two decades after graduation, these women have for the most part all the accoutrements that accompany an ivy league degree: important jobs, successful marriages to successful men, brilliant children, beautiful houses, and second homes in beautiful places. But over the last few years, the real world--a deep recession, the deaths of parents, spouses and friends, infidelities and infertility—have begun to intrude. The women are faced with the inevitable mid-life question for which even a Harvard education doesn't provide an answer: What’s it all about?

Kogan's novel unfolds with even more questions. Should a high-powered banker leave her husband for her freshman boyfriend and first love? Should a stay-at-home mother of four children figure out a way to follow her deepest passion--the stage? Should the perfect wife mother and former Harvard "it girl" come out as a lesbian and start a business to support her family? Should a widowed foreign correspondent forgive her philandering new boyfriend and have his baby? These are just some of the plot twists Kogan's characters face. Each woman inevitably has to deconstruct her own biography and figure out how to rewrite or edit her life so the next entry in the red book will reflect more accurately the life she truly wants to be living. Or, as we like to say here at our blog: Your consciously-constructed second life. By the end of the book, Kogan’s four Harvard women of the Apocalypse are well on their way. The book concludes with future entries to the red book on the occasion of their 25th reunion. And, these newly-examined lives of the four women are well-worth reading.

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By the way, I am thinking of writing my own entry summing up my past five years. The University of Dayton (where I got my BA) couldn’t care less but I think it will be instructive, at least for me. I am already realizing how much I’ve accomplished in terms of living authentically in the last half-decade. Why don’t you do a quick sub-total yourself? You can't see anything looking forward--the future's mostly white space--but the past can be illuminating.

(Photo Caption: Some of my red books, from left: my Kate Spade planner from 2005, my Filofax from 2002, my Kindle (a Christmas gift from my daughters, 2008), On Becoming a Person by Carl W. Rogers, copyright 1961 ( from the Chicago public library taken out --and never returned--OMG!!! --1972), The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan, copyright 2012; front center:my lizard Smyson date book from 2010, my Smyson address book (a Valentine's Day gift, 2009)

Post Script: If you want to sample Kogan's writing, see Second Thoughts for her non-fiction memoir.

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