The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan

A quick rundown… A Harvard 20 year reunion for a group of old friends is besieged by the lies they’ve told over the years in the alumni ‘Red Book’. How can they turn their lives around?

Strengths: I love that we can read excerpts of each character’s entry in the Red Book and then find out what’s really going on.

Weaknesses: Occasionally it was hard to keep track of the names of children, spouses, lovers, ex-lovers, enemies etc.

Why I read it: Saw it in the bookshop and knew it was for me.

Pages: 368

Published: 2012

Publisher: Virago

Setting: America, France

Rating: 9 out of 10

I love books about college/university life, books that include letters/newspaper excerpts etc and books where we find out what happened to each character over time. The Red Book combines all of these things – four college friends returning to Harvard for their 20 year reunion, the Red Book (an alumni book for each person to detail their life, loves, offspring and notable achievements) and a nice little postscript after the reunion. I loved it. Given that the book has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I’m hearing more mixed reviews about it. I don’t think this novel pretends to be anything it isn’t – it’s a book with incredibly well written characters and intricate relationships that asks the question – when do we ever tell the truth? We might embellish details in the Red Book, but are we true to ourselves, given what everyone else wants us to be?

The Red Book introduces us to four main female characters, who were all friends at Harvard. Twenty years later, their lives are all very different and ripe for change. There’s Addison, now a bored mother of two who’s way over her head financially – especially as she’s now been arrested for not paying her college parking fines. Clover had the Wall Street dream after an unconventional childhood, but now she’s unemployed and desperate for a baby. Mia married a Hollywood director, giving up an acting career for motherhood and redecorating. Finally, Jane (who was adopted as a child) needs to come to grips with the death of her husband and mother – who appear not to be the pinnacles she thought. As you can tell, there’s a lot of unsolved issues here, and plenty more resurface over the course of the reunion weekend. All the characters are hiding something from themselves and from others. The characters are definitely Copaken Kogan’s strength – each is beautifully flawed, realistic and multilayered. The supporting characters (predominantly the husbands, ex-lovers and children) are also memorable – much more than a simple sketch. The names of the characters are also incredible – in a good way. Unusual, but memorable.

Reading this book reminded me of a more modern version of The Group. It has that social commentary and solidarity of friendships feel about it. I loved the interactions between characters (the dialogue fits each character perfectly – Jane is timid and worried, Clover cheeky and witty) and I enjoyed the way each main character had their back story told so we could fill in the blanks of their time studying. A lot happens in one weekend, but it’s all plausible. In my opinion, this is a great fiction debut and I’m crossing my fingers it will make the shortlist.

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6 thoughts on “The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan

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  1. Having only read ‘so-so’ reviews on this one, great to hear your different take on it. I think I prefer the alternate cover art, the one with line/cartoon drawings of people rather than this one, although I guess this one is more literal…

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