After that melodramatic setup, the rest of the novel explores the effects of the tragedy on members of each family. Structuring the book around four consecutive summers mirrors the resort identity of the town and effectively shows time passing.
The bride and groom, portrayed as a golden couple, brought together two contrasting families - the working-class Tetherlys, year-round residents of the town, and the privileged Copakens, Jewish New Yorkers who spend each summer in Red Hook.
Iris, the bride's mother, plays up her ancestral ties to the town, but most permanent residents still consider her an outsider. The differences between the two families play out in burial customs, as well as in further interactions. By shifting points of view, Waldman gives us an inside look at how surviving members of each family process grief, from anger to bewilderment.
Though Waldman shows Jane, the groom's mother, ferociously cleaning houses for a living, she focuses mostly on the Copakens (to complicate things, they are among Jane's clients). Iris, an accomplished professor accustomed to controlling everyone around her, falls apart when she is faced with a situation she could not have possibly predicted. Her husband, Daniel, returns to boxing, a sport he loved before he was married, which propels him away. Their surviving daughter questions the academic fast track her mother has pushed her to follow, falling, perhaps inevitably, into the arms of the groom's somewhat lost younger brother.
The character most equipped to withstand the tragedy is Iris' father, Emil Kimmelbrod, a Holocaust survivor who lost most of his family before he fled Europe and married a woman from Red Hook. Parkinson's disease has brought him to the end of a long and distinguished career as a violinist and music teacher, but his insights - mostly kept to himself, and beautifully understated - give the story a depth and context lacking in the self-centered people around him.
Music comforts and helps sustain Kimmelbrod, but also the Tetherlys and other Copakens, in unexpected and ultimately positive ways. A child from the Tetherly clan proves to be an exceptionally talented violinist, reminding everyone of the bride's lengthy but ultimately abandoned musical training. In a decision that scandalized Iris, the bride sold her instrument to fund the groom's sailboat restoration. A near-tragedy that also brings the two families together smacks of the same sort of melodrama that sets up the novel, and detracts from the finely constructed scenes centered around music.
Waldman is at her best in lyrical descriptions, especially of the town.
"At low tide the streambed was a bog of brackish mud, teeming with minnows in puddles, and boulders drying white in the sun," she writes.
Waldman's nuanced portrait of Iris keeps the character from deserving the label of Waldman's other book, Bad Mother. Yet some of the other characters, especially Jane, seem less fully realized. Still, after four summers pass, everyone does come to a fuller understanding of themselves and their place in the world - which is what you want them to do after a tragedy of this magnitude.
Clara Silverstein, a writer who lives in the Boston area, directs the summer Chautauqua Writers' Center.