Award-winning writer Stewart O'Nan has been acclaimed by critics as one of the most accomplished novelists writing today. Now comes "his most complete work to date, filled with the type of life lessons that the best fiction has to offer and from an author firmly in control of his art" (Rob Stout, Orlando Sentinel). A year after the death of her husband, Henry, Emily Maxwell gathers her family by Lake Chautauqua in western New York for what will be a last vacation at their summer cottage. Joining is her sister-in-law, who silently mourns the sale of the lake house, and a long-lost love. Emily's firebrand daughter, a recovering alcoholic recently separated from her husband, brings her children from Detroit. Emily's son, who has quit his job and mortgaged his future to pursue his art, comes accompanied by his children and his wife, who is secretly heartened to be visiting the house for the last time.
Memories of past summers resurface, old rivalries flare up, and love is rekindled and born anew, resulting in a timeless novel that "succeeds beautifully . . . showcases some of the finest character studies a contemporary reader could ask for" (Cynthia Dockrell, The Boston Globe).
O'Nan relies on a patient accumulation of detail instead of a focused dramatic arc to achieve a Vermeer-like realism in his latest novel. His strategy is to record minutely the thoughts and actions of all nine members of the extended Maxwell family as they spend a week at their family summer house, until their smallest gestures become familiar to the reader. Now that her husband, Henry, is dead, Emily Maxwell, the matriarch of the clan, is selling the family retreat near Chautauqua, N.Y. Emily and her sister-in-law, Arlene, drive up together from Pittsburgh for a last summer visit; Emily's son, Ken, and his wife, Lise, come next with their two children; and finally Emily's daughter, Meg, and Meg's son and daughter arrive. For seven days the Maxwells interact, with Emily's disappointment in her children prompting them to assess their lives themselves. Meg, a recovering alcoholic, is in the middle of a divorce. Kenneth is a failed photographer, whose latest low-paying job is in a photo lab. Lise, his wife, dislikes Emily, and is jealous of Ken and Meg's closeness. The children, whose tensions are wholly other than those of the adults, are tracked just as closely, with O'Nan's account of Ken's 13-year-old daughter Ella's budding crush on her cousin Sarah, also 13, becoming one of the high points of the novel. Various subplots evolve, especially one concerning a kidnapped local store clerk. At times the story is smothered by its own accumulative logic; yet in clinging so relentlessly to the surface of his world, O'Nan slowly pulls the reader into it.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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April 01, 2003
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Excerpt from Wish You Were Here by Stewart O'Nan
They took Arlene's car because it had air-conditioning and Emily wasn't sure the Olds would make it. That and Arlene's was bigger, a wagon, better for bringing things back.
Emily knew she wouldn't be able to resist. She'd never learned to take even the smallest loss gracefully--a glass cracked in the dishwasher, a sweater shrunk by the dryer. She'd stuff the Taurus full of junk she didn't have room for at home. All of it would end up down in the basement, moldering next to the extra fridge still filled to clinking with Henry's Iron Citys. She didn't drink beer, and she couldn't bring herself to twist them open one by one and tip them foaming down the sink, so they stayed there, the crimped edges of the bottle caps going rusty, giving her vegetables a steely tinge. She would save what she could, she knew, though Henry himself would have shaken his head at the mess.
It would be the last time she made the trip up, the last time she saw the cottage. The closing would be handled by her attorney--Henry's, really. She'd only spoken with him once in person, last fall, numbly going over the estate. Everything else was done by phone, or Federal Express, an expense she considered extravagant and feared she was paying for, but Henry had used Barney Pontzer for thirty years, and she trusted Henry's judgment, in this case more than her own.
The cottage was three hours from the house, depending on 79. Saturdays could be bad. She wanted to leave around nine so they'd be there by lunchtime, but Arlene was late and then gave her a hard time about Rufus, ceremoniously laying a faded Steelers towel over the backseat. Emily assured her that he hadn't been fed this morning, but Arlene kept tucking the towel into the crack. They'd had the exact same argument over Christmas, visiting Kenneth. It was so pointless. The car stunk of her Luckies and always would.
"He's fine," Emily insisted.
"He's good about it now."
"I was thinking more for the hair."
"Oh please," Emily said, trying to laugh, "a towel's not going to do anything. I'll vacuum it when we get there."
"Someone will have to."
These everlasting battles, Emily thought. Couldn't Arlene see this trip was different? Henry attributed his sister's obtuseness to her schoolteacher's practicality, but Emily thought it was more ingrained than willful. Arlene seemed constantly on guard, afraid of somehow being cheated. It made sense: Henry had been the baby, their parents' favorite, an engineer like his father. Her entire life Arlene had had to fight for the least bit of attention.
But they were all gone, Emily wanted to say. She could stop now.
Rufus had hip trouble, and she had to help him in. Arlene said nothing while she rearranged the towel. Truthfully, Rufus still got carsick, though no longer to the point of upchucking. Over the years he'd learned to keep his head down so the endless carousel of trees and fields no longer dizzied him, but he still hitched and hiccupped as if he was going to let loose. Instead he drooled, long gelatinous strings depending from his jowls, catching in his coat like spiderwebs. And all right, he was shedding heavily. It had been a beastly summer. The baseboards in the bedroom were drifted with dark clumps of fur that scattered at the approach of the vacuum, but that was natural for a springer spaniel.
Could she or Arlene say they'd aged more gracefully? Rufus was fourteen and had spent his every summer at the cottage. He deserved a last romp with the grandchildren, a last swim off the dock, a last snooze on the cool slab of the screenporch. She would Hoover Arlene's seats if it came to that.
The house was locked, the windows closed, the machine on. She'd stopped the mail and cleaned out the hydrator. The Olds was purposely low, in case anyone broke into the garage with an idea of stealing it. Marcia next door had a key and the number up at Chautauqua. If she'd forgotten anything, she couldn't think of it.
"And they're off," Emily said, turning her wrist over to check Henry's Hamilton.
Arlene drove slowly, cozied up to the wheel, peering over her hands like the pilot of a ship in fog. It was already hot and the air-conditioning was heavenly. Shadows of trees fell sharply across the empty sidewalks. In yards browned with drought, sprinklers whisked and tilted. It felt good to be moving, leaving the still city, as if they were escaping a great palace while everyone slept.
Traffic was surprisingly light on the Boulevard of the Allies, the Monongahela brown and sluggish below, a coal train crawling along the far shore. The mile-long mills were gone, nothing but graded fields protected by chain-link fences.