UPSTATE by James Wood


Email this review


An understated novel by the eminent literary critic in which a father confronts problems in the lives of his adult daughters during a trip to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York.

Wood (The Nearest Thing to Life, 2015, etc.) sets his second novel in early 2007, a time of the Blackberry and Sen. Obama that seems eons ago. The story concerns Alan Querry, a 68-year-old real estate developer in Northumberland, England, whose business has turned rocky around the time he learns that his older daughter needs his help. Vanessa, 40 and a philosophy professor at Skidmore, has had bouts of depression over the years that may stem from Alan’s side of the family and from her parents’ “bitter divorce” when she was 15. After a recent episode, her younger sister, Helen, a successful Sony music executive in London, and Alan visit her in the States. They find her in reasonable mental health although torn between an urge to return to England and the fear that such a move would upend relations with her first serious lover, the American Josh. Helen, whose marriage is shaky, is mulling quitting Sony for a new project her father might join. Wood, who has written about Who drummer Keith Moon, has fun dipping into the world of pop music. In the course of meals and meetings that are variously tense or pleasant, the Querrys and Josh are presented as reasonable, intelligent adults whose problems are surmountable. Yes, Vanessa does ask at one point, “What if despair…kept on returning,” and Alan recalls a frightening vision of “all the dead, past and future,” while at Hadrian’s Wall. But these are rare dark moments in a narrative that tellingly ends with a lush prose cadenza on spring’s renewal without ever truly testing its characters and letting them show their mettle.

A likable novel in many ways but short on the revelatory heft of serious fiction.

Pub Date: June 5th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-374-27953-0
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2018


NonfictionTHE NEAREST THING TO LIFE by James Wood
by James Wood
NonfictionHOW FICTION WORKS by James Wood
by James Wood
NonfictionTHE IRRESPONSIBLE SELF by James Wood
by James Wood


FictionA BOY MADE OF BLOCKS by Keith  Stuart
by Keith Stuart
FictionWE ARE NOT OURSELVES by Matthew Thomas
by Matthew Thomas
FictionIMAGINE ME GONE by Adam Haslett
by Adam Haslett