Every five years, Harvard graduates send their alma mater a few paragraphs (or a few pages) about their lives. These updates are compiled in what’s known as “the red book.” When it arrives in the mail, alumni not only devour it like a gossip magazine, they also use it as the yardstick by which they measure their own success.
But as Deborah Copaken Kogan reveals in her novel, “The Red Book,” that sort of relative measurement can be a blessing and a curse. The book depicts four female protagonists as Harvard undergraduates, and 20 years later, as their class reunion approaches.
Kogan spoke recently with The Sisterhood about how personal upheaval inspired “The Red Book,” the challenges inherent to working motherhood — she is the mother of three kids, ages 5 to 16 — and the person she thinks will be a “game-changer” for professional women.
Katharine Herrup: How did this book come about?
Deborah Copaken Kogan: I had just gone to my 20th reunion in 2008. Right around that time my dad had died of pancreatic cancer, my husband lost his job and we had to move our family to Harlem. So I decided to write about middle age and recession because they collided in a way that felt very visceral.
Why did you focus on female classmates?
I was born in the era of white gloves and Jackie Kennedy’s pill-box hats, but I grew up in the era of feminism. We were told we could have any job we wanted but once we hit the working world we had no infrastructure. There was no paid maternity leave or subsidized day care. The obstacles were so great as to sometimes be debilitating and I thought I couldn’t be the only one feeling this way. Then when all of us were turning 42, 43, an age when one hopes to be settled, the recession started to hit and suddenly many of us were instantaneously unsettled.
A federal complaint against Yale by a group of students, accusing the university of creating a “hostile sexual environment,” is making big news this week. The substance of the accusation is that by failing to take instances of public and private harassment and assault seriously, the university is violating Title IX.
The press coverage has been fairer than I expected, more willing to hear the women’s side of the story. But maybe that’s because of this sort of thing: When a “Good Morning America” reporter went to campus to investigate the charges, she was interrupted by a loud sexist slur, as Jezebel noted. In the face of that type of incident, it’s hard to say the young complainants are overreacting.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. When I was an undergrad at Harvard, reporting for our campus paper that students had recently filed a federal complaint against the university alleging that its sexual assault policy, which required third-party evidence to press charges internally, violated — you guessed it — Title IX. Eventually, the university had to respond to a number of different kinds of internal and external pressure about this awful policy with some fairly sweeping changes, although I’m sure not all is perfect now.