Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"Wish You Were Here," by Stewart O'Nan

I was happy to “discover” Stewart O’Nan’s fiction these past couple of years (see my posts of 5/17/11, 1/26/12, and 3/14/13), and very much appreciate and enjoy his writing. I have just read one of his earlier novels, “Wish You Were Here” (Grove, 2002), and although I enjoyed it and admired, as always, his insights into his characters and their relationships, especially family relationships, I enjoyed it less than I did the other novels I have posted on here. I am guessing this is because it was written earlier, and in most (although not all) cases, as a writer practices and refines his/her craft, that writer becomes better with time. All O’Nan’s wonderful qualities are in this book, but parts of it seem a bit belabored. The novel describes a week in a family’s summer house in Chautauqua (New York), as they are closing up the house one final time, in order to sell it. Emily, recently widowed when her longtime husband Henry died, has made this decision; neither Henry’s sister Arlene nor Emily's and Henry’s two adult children Meg and Kenneth (and Kenneth’s wife Lise) are happy about this, but none of them can afford to keep up the place. Four young grandchildren are also present during this week. Each character has her or his own memories, worries, problems, and flashes of happiness during the week. The family does various activities, including following certain traditions such as certain outings, certain dinners. This is actually a kind of set-up that I really like in a novel: a family or group of friends gathered together in one place for a certain period of time; a vacation setting; a chance to observe the characters as they interact. Not a lot “happens,” yet the dynamics of the family are increasingly revealed throughout. The family is basically a loving one, but it is hard to ignore some of the fissures and resentments present, some springing from childhood days and some more recently. It took me a while to finish this long (517 pages) novel, and I put it aside a couple of times while reading other things. I know this sounds philistine-ish, but I think the novel could have been a hundred or so pages shorter. But even as I type this, I feel a bit reluctant, because I do so admire O’Nan’s writing, and do not want to say anything that would discourage readers from pursuing his novels. I will say that my favorite novel by him is still “Emily, Alone,” which I posted about on 5/17/11; I highly recommend it. And by the way, the Emily of that title is the same Emily as in this novel, “Wish You Were Here.”

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