A deep, poignant study of a family fighting its inner demons awaits in Stewart O'Nan's Wish You Were Here
. A year after the death of her husband, Emily Maxwell gathers her immediate family together at their summer home on Lake Chautauqua in western New York for a final sendoff and to dole out keepsakes before the new owners move in. Joining Emily is her daughter, Meg, fresh from rehab and upset over her imminent divorce, and Meg's children: the emotionally unstable Justin, and Sarah, a teenage beauty learning to use her charms. Ken, Emily's fortyish slacker son, and his wife, Lisa, also bunk down for the week, bringing along their two kids: the troubled Sam, and Ella, a plain, smart girl who finds herself with a crush on her cousin, Sarah.
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. --Michael Ferch
From Publishers Weekly
O'Nan relies on a patient accumulation of detail instead of a focused dramatic arc to achieve a Vermeer-like realism in his latest novel. His strategy is to record minutely the thoughts and actions of all nine members of the extended Maxwell family as they spend a week at their family summer house, until their smallest gestures become familiar to the reader. Now that her husband, Henry, is dead, Emily Maxwell, the matriarch of the clan, is selling the family retreat near Chautauqua, N.Y. Emily and her sister-in-law, Arlene, drive up together from Pittsburgh for a last summer visit; Emily's son, Ken, and his wife, Lise, come next with their two children; and finally Emily's daughter, Meg, and Meg's son and daughter arrive. For seven days the Maxwells interact, with Emily's disappointment in her children prompting them to assess their lives themselves. Meg, a recovering alcoholic, is in the middle of a divorce. Kenneth is a failed photographer, whose latest low-paying job is in a photo lab. Lise, his wife, dislikes Emily, and is jealous of Ken and Meg's closeness. The children, whose tensions are wholly other than those of the adults, are tracked just as closely, with O'Nan's account of Ken's 13-year-old daughter Ella's budding crush on her cousin Sarah, also 13, becoming one of the high points of the novel. Various subplots evolve, especially one concerning a kidnapped local store clerk. At times the story is smothered by its own accumulative logic; yet in clinging so relentlessly to the surface of his world, O'Nan slowly pulls the reader into it.
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