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[451] Wish You Were Here – Stewart O’Nan

” Part of it was vacation. The days were shapeless and bland, like today, taking the kids to the movies. It was just the rain, and having nothing to do. In Boston he’s be in his darkroom, satisfied to work in the quiet red light. Part of it was his father, he couldn’t deny it. For all its changes, Chautauqua seemed to belong to the past, brought those lost summers and everything in them closer. ” (173)

Wish You Were Here follows the Maxwell family’s week-long summer vacation around Fourth of July. The summer has also marked a year since the death of Emily’s husband, Henry. She gathers her family by Lake Chautauqua in western New York for what will be their last vacation at the the summer cottage, which Emily plans to sell because she can no longer take it of it by herself. She also harbors a plan to help out her grownup children, who seem to be worse than she has suspected, with the money from the sale.

Margaret, a recovering alcoholic, is recently divorced. With two children in tow, coming to the summer cottage, which she very much has dreaded, is acquiescence of defeat. She has now officially earned her mother’s disapproval of her and her life. Bored as a child and ungrateful as a teenager, she ran away from home at age 16 and returned a alcoholic mother. She has always been afraid of family gatherings for fear of being exposed and confronted of her failure—for it’s not far-fetched when she reflects upon her lost years, all the fearless, stupid, and outrageous things she has done.

On Emily’s mind also is her son Kenneth, who has quit his job and mortgaged his future to pursue his art. Over the years he has got better at anticipating his mother’s quiet criticisms, and he knows better to be honest about his latest kick. But his son beats him tipping Emily about his hourly-paid job at the photo-lab. His evasiveness and the distracted, haphazard approach to life also put a lot of tension on his marriage to Lise. In the leisure of vacation, it’s hard for her not to wallow in her problems and think of the uncertain future. And that Kenneth could talk so freely and easily with his sister—about what he has dealt on but never revealed (to her) makes her angry.

She wished she had the ability to absent herself, to become part of the dock and without intruding. She could happily sit there forever, a morning like this. The peace of the day became hers, quieted her mind, if only for a moment. At home it was impossible, any day dream leading to Henry or the children’s old rooms, the past flashing like a photo album, but here she was justified, the setting—the spirit of the place . . . (355)

As memories of past summers resurface, it becomes clear to Emily that the family summer home, a place with such spirit that is supposed to let visitors forget time, opens oneself to larger contemplation. In this beautiful novel O’Nan doesn’t devise much of a plot but he has painted a very vivid tableau of daily life. As he draws us into the tangle of jealousies, pent-up emotions, deep wounds and hurt feelings of the family, we read on less to find out what happens to the Maxwells than to become acquainted with the characters, whose life we can resonate with. As the family comes to grapple with their loss, they also come to terms with a gamut of emotions and tension. Wish You Were Here is a close portraiture of a family told through an elergy of a lost father, a lost past and lost dreams. It’s a testimony of motherly love, how inevitably parents is given to the worries of their children.

517 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


9 Responses

  1. I should have read this first but Emily Alone was the only audio my library had. So I know the characters, and the events that are described in this book are also referred to in Emily Alone. After having read that book, and The Odds, I’m starting to think O’ Nan might not be for me. He is excellent at characterization but I’ve not been blown away by either book. This makes me sad…

    • Yes, you should. Ha! I didn’t read this comment and I just replied to your comment on Emily, Alone. Judging from the character-driven nature of Emily, Alone, you probably would like that better if you have read Wish You Were Here since a lot of her reflection draws from events in this book.

  2. This sounds really good, although I do have reservations about non-plotty books. On the other hand, family interactions are one of my favorite things in books…

  3. […] [451] Wish You Were Here – Stewart O’Nan […]

  4. […] [451] Wish You Were Here – Stewart O’Nan […]

  5. Families are such complex ecosystems that it is rare to find an author who can navigate a family system, describe it, make us care about the characters, etc. This book sounds like a must read for me.

    • Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Tropper also handle family interactions very adroitly. They, however, lean on humor in tackling the dynamics. O’Nan is unique and mastery in his effortlessly quiet writing.

  6. […] surviving another day, the book is a celebration of hope and the importance of love and family. Wish You Were Here by Stewart O’Nan This book follows the Maxwell family’s week-long summer vacation around […]

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