A WORLD AWAY by Stewart O’Nan


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Granta named O’Nan one of the best new American writers, and his brilliantly executed fourth (after The Speed Queen, 1997) shows why, though it’s also a long nostalgia bath, the novelistic equivalent of a loved old movie. In mid-WWII, high-school coach and history teacher James Langer takes his family to the old shore house in Hampton Bays, Long Island, where he himself grew up and where all will stay until the summer draws to its bittersweet end. It’s not a pleasure-trip, though, since Langer’s old father, who still lives in the house, is dying and needs looking after. And there are other uncertainties and sorrows that, like the old man’s death, will be resolved one way or another by summer’s close. It’s nothing if not uncertain whether Langer’s wife Anne can quit loathing him for his recent affair with a 16-year-old student or whether the marriage can survive her own avenging summertime fling. And, as regards survival, not only is there the emotional aftermath (especially hard on young Jay, 12 or so) of the family’s having been ostracized—names called, backs turned, windows broken, worse—as a result of older son Rennie’s decision to enter the war as a conscientious objector, but there’s the very real question whether Rennie now, a medic and missing in action, will come back alive at all, this happening right at the time his late-teen wife is having their first baby. Such melodrama by the carload, however, O’Nan handles with absolutely masterful eye and ear, putting the smallest period detail in its place (the Philco in the living room, horsemeat at the butcher, war news in the paper) and again and again striking perfect aesthetic sparks from even this soft old stone: “Anne. . . sat fanning herself with an old Collier’s,” “The night was chilly, a cold smell of clamshells in the wind.” Hands-down winner of best novel of the year award except that that year might be 1947, say, or 1948.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-8050-5774-9
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1998


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