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WISH YOU WERE HERE by Stewart O’Nan

WISH YOU WERE HERE

By Stewart O’Nan

Pub Date: May 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-8021-1715-5
Publisher: Grove

O’Nan’s exceedingly low-key seventh novel (after Everyday People, 2001, etc.) depicts a family’s final week in the summer cottage its widowed matriarch has just sold.

Following husband Henry’s death, Emily Maxwell doesn’t feel up to the demands of owning a vacation home on New York’s Lake Chautauqua while living in Pittsburgh, especially since neither son Ken nor daughter Meg is in any position to help. Ken is trying without much conviction to find himself as a photographer, though both he and wife Lise suspect he has no great talent. Meg’s husband left her a year ago shortly after she completed rehab; she’s not drinking but still smokes pot and is as angry as ever. Unsurprisingly, Meg’s ten-year-old son Justin worries about everything, while teenaged daughter Sarah simply stonewalls her. Ken’s daughter Ella spends the week trying to hide her lesbian crush on pretty, sexy Sarah, while son Sam steals items he hopes won’t be missed. Henry’s sister Arlene, a retired schoolteacher, observes the clan’s uneasy interactions while mourning the sale of a cottage she feels is as much hers as Emily’s. As always, O’Nan limns his characters with authority and empathy, doing so especially with Emily, who can’t help expecting the worst in every situation and constantly makes lists of the tasks everyone else has failed to perform. The most moving passages occur during a day trip to Niagara Falls as Emily’s recollections of her honeymoon there mingle with memories of Henry’s death. Everyone misses Henry, portrayed by O’Nan as a quiet man who held the family together but papered over conflicts that should have been confronted. On the debit side, it’s hard to take much interest in characters who all see themselves as dreadfully ordinary when their author neither counters that judgment nor makes any claims for the importance of ordinariness.

Fine prose and lovely strokes of portraiture throughout, but overall a bit of a disappointment from so ambitious and gifted a writer.