By February 13, 2012 0 Comments Read More →

A Family Summer Vacation Idyll: Stewart O’Nan’s “Wish You Were Here”

I had the pleasure of meeting Stewart O’Nan a couple of weeks ago and his affability and warm, open demeanor endeared me all the more to this Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania author. O’Nan read from his new novel, The Odds, and even sang pieces of the Heart rock-ballads mentioned in the novel.

While O’Nan said his wife calls Wish You Were Here his “long boring book,” I was moved to read it after the event as I wanted to reconnect with the Maxwell family that I met first in its sequel, Emily, Alone.

Wish You Were Here captures the Maxwell clan the first summer the family returns to their summer cabin on Lake Chatutauqua in New York after the death of patriarch Henry Maxwell. This is a fateful week for the Maxwells as Emily plans to sell the lake house and her adult children, Margaret and Kenneth are struggling with financial and emotional obstacles in their lives.

Henry Maxwell haunts the book, suspended in the perspex of his workbench and tools, his bottle of Scotch and automobile glasses; the strong silence of the man lingers in the house and in the memories of Emily, Kenneth and Margaret. O’Nan is a careful observer of his characters and he inhabits every character with nuance and grace. Margaret, fresh from rehab and impending divorce, revisits her relationship with her father:

So many times he’d taken her side, yet it didn’t matter because in the end he always gave in to her mother. He was a weak ally, and ultimately–again, a teenager, brave and unforgiving–she shamed him with it, and the two of them were never the same, like Jeff after her rehab. She would never understand why men were so brittle. For all their posturing they didn’t know how to fight, how to win or lose without letting it wreck them.

O’Nan renders characters and scenes with a realism that honors those small moments and details that add dimension to our lives. But what is also remarkable about this quiet novel examining family dynamics in a fishbowl of a time and place are the ways in which other themes and plots in later O’Nan novels emerge–a meal at a Red Lobster restaurant (Last Night at the Lobster), a missing girl (Songs for the Missing) and Niagara Falls (The Odds). Wish You Were Here also presents the heroine of Emily, Alone with less sympathy in the eyes of her children, grandchildren, daughter-in-law and sister-in-law, Arlene; but then, we see ourselves more sympathetically, potentially, and differently, certainly, than others do.

If you read and enjoyed Emily, Alone, then you will likely also want to spend more time with the Maxwells. As I previously predicted, Wish You Were Here has made me feel that I need to reread Emily, Alone. I will have to schedule it for my book group soon to make good and sure that I do.

 Book groups, take note: Stewart O’Nan is a novelist the bears discovering and rereading.

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

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