Wish You Were Here by Stewart O’Nan
Publisher: Grove Press
Published: May 2002
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Book Summary: A year after the death of her husband, Henry, Emily Maxwell gathers her family by Lake Chautauqua in western New York for what will be a last vacation at their summer cottage. Joining is her sister-in-law, who silently mourns the sale of the lake house, and a long-lost love. Emily's firebrand daughter, a recovering alcoholic recently separated from her husband, brings her children from Detroit. Emily's son, who has quit his job and mortgaged his future to pursue his art, comes accompanied by his children and his wife, who is secretly heartened to be visiting the house for the last time. Memories of past summers resurface, old rivalries flare up, and love is rekindled and born anew, resulting in a timeless novel drawn, as the best writing often is, from the ebbs and flow of daily life.
O'Nan has a gift for voicing the inner fears that motivate and stifle us, and his characters move and act as members of a polite society--a family even. Yet each is distinctly alone, with voices and turmoil raging inside. The tension between the characters is keenly drawn, and O'Nan perceptively captures the snippets of thought and memory that follow us around. Ken notes "he assumed more than he knew, not only about the world--whose workings would remain closed, forever a mystery--but even those closest to him." Emily, while preparing dinner, finds her late husband's bottle of scotch, and imbibes:
“She went to the window over the sink and held it up to the light, long now and mote-struck, casting shadows under the chestnut, firing an amber glow in her hand.... She looked around the kitchen again as if she'd forgotten something but couldn't find what it was.”
Wish You Were Here is an excellent character study of a family grudgingly plodding forward while believing the best chance for happiness passed by sometime ago.
My Thoughts: This was the second book I read by Stewart O’Nan. After reading The Odds, there was no question in my mind I’d read more of O’Nan books. Fortunately, my library had Wish You Were Here on the shelves. The fly-leaf summary described a book I would have wanted to read without knowing about O’Nan’s writing. The author’s observations and understanding of human nature take this book, about an extremely dysfunctional extended family, to a whole other level. Wish You Were Here hooks you right away and draws you into the story quickly. O’Nan allows us to meet all of the family members, to watch as they interact with each other and to eavesdrop on their private thoughts and struggles. We watch as their quirks, flaws and characters develop before us providing us with an understanding of human nature and behavior. Halfway through the book I felt as if I knew the Maxwell Family personally. I continued reading, anxious to know where Emily, Ken, Ella and Sara’s journey’s, as well as those of the other family members, would take them the rest of their week at the cottage.
O’Nan is a remarkable author who seems to truly understands how people think, feel and how they reveal themselves. One of the things I find most fascinating about O’Nan’s writing and storytelling is he understands all humans: the young, old and middle-aged, both male and female. It’s the rare author who enables me to understand, Lisa, a completely self-centered and petulant wife and mother. I strongly disliked the latter character for much of the book. But, towards the end, due to O’Nan’s compelling prose, I felt myself sympathizing with her. I realized how lonely she felt everyday with her husband so absorbed by his own interests he forgot she was around much of the time. O’Nan also made it possible for me to understand a young, intelligent, teenager struggling with her sexuality and lusting after her friend and female cousin. It was heartbreaking to witness Ella’s struggle over whether or not she should reveal her feelings and her awareness that she was alone with her problem.
Emily, the elderly matriarch of the Maxwell clan, the mother, grandmother and sister-in-law, was my favorite character. She’s not a sweet, darling octogenarian. She’s often controlling, quietly demanding, irascible and prone to nagging. Her children complain and whine about her to each other. And, secretly, they’re afraid of disappointing her. Emily is still grieving her husband, Henry’s death. There are reminders of him everywhere she turns at the cottage. The relief and sadness she feels at deciding, finally, to definitely sell the cottage is understandable. Emily’s decision’s made easier when she realizes Margaret needs her help. O’Nan captures, perfectly, the mother-daughter relationship here. Margaret’s awkward and fearful about revealing to her mother the state of her marriage and how poorly she coped with it all while Emily just wants to be sure her daughter and grandchildren are safe.
Ken, Margaret and Emily are each individually flawed and there is a tremendous amount of dysfunction in their interactions but, at the foundation of it all is their love for one another. They’ll take care of each other and watch out for one another when needed. This may be what Lisa chafes at and despises. She came into the family an outsider and keeps herself at a distance, allowing anger and bitterness to grow, rather than show love and acceptance to her husband’s family. She relishes the personal intimacies she has with Ken but refuses to befriend his sister or mother. O’Nan understands these intricacies of human behavior. He successfully weaves them into his story, bringing the characters to life. Their conversations, arguments and silences make sense to us because we recognize them from our own life or the lives of the people around us. Wish You Were Here is absorbing simply because it feels like it’s about people we know or knew at one time. This book was a little slow at times, but still an excellent read that I highly recommend to all readers.