Sunday, July 21, 2002
Although "Wish You Were Here" is about a family spending only one week at their summer cottage, the novel tells a lifetime of stories.
The strong attachment between siblings, the lost love of a never-married aunt, the sputtering career of a dutiful son, the insecurities of a teen-age girl and the struggles of a recovering alcoholic are all tales told in Stewart O'Nan's affectionate, resonant book.
Shortly after the death of her husband, Emily Maxwell, the family matriarch, decides to sell the family's lakeside cottage in western New York, where they have spent decades of summers.
But first, she, her children, grandchildren and sister-in-law spend one last week there, relaxing, reminiscing and trying not to get on each other's nerves.
O'Nan frames the story with a unique device ï¿½ dividing the book into eight sections, one for each day at the cottage, starting with breakfast and ending with bedtime.
Each chapter within the sections picks up the story from the perspective of a different character. O'Nan is as comfortable and enlightening inside the mind of a retired, never-married schoolteacher (Emily's sister-in-law) as he is inside that of a shy, video game-obsessed 8-year-old (Emily's grandson).
This structure keeps the lengthy book moving along and allows the reader to know the thoughts and feelings each of the nine characters has about himself and his housemates.
For instance, while some family members think Emily is cold and judgmental, and a woman who frequently nagged her husband, Emily's memories portray herself differently.
This is especially true during a road trip the family takes to Niagara Falls, the site of Emily's honeymoon:
"Just the thought transported her back to Henry's Chevy, the vent window tipped out all the way backwards to funnel air into the stifling box of the car. And still it was a beautiful day, and they were happy, as if the weather, like the songs on the radio, was meant for them, stemmed somehow from their love, the rest of the world a backdrop for its two most popular stars. The sun made the day sharp and promising, as if they might drive forever, only stopping to make love and eat. It has seemed that way, though they must have ... stopped at stoplights and fussed with the luggage."
A few chapters later, O'Nan writes from the perspective of teen-age Sarah, dealing with a breakup back home: "He was about as romantic as a roll-on deodorant. He lied to her when he told her he would write. She wrote. He never wrote, only this: 'I'm sorry. I hope you're not angry.' Two pages of excuses."
As for the plot, there isn't much: Emily's children try to persuade her to keep the cottage; one of her granddaughters has a secret crush; and her son is remotely involved in the case of a missing local girl.