Tag Archives: brothers and/or sisters

Summer’s End: Wish You Were Here by Stewart O’Nan

cover image of Wish You Were HereWish You Were Here by Stewart O’Nan is an elegiac novel about the passing of a family’s era, when an extended family gathers at their aging Lake Chautauqua house for a vacation week at the end of the summer, preparing the house to be sold.

Although the absence of the patriarch, Henry Maxwell, is keenly felt by everyone from the members of his own generation – his sister Arlene and his wife Emily, his adult children – Kenneth, there with his wife Lise, and Meg, recently divorced, down to the four grandchildren – two older girl cousins and two younger boy cousins – Henry is only present in the memories sparked by his fishing gear and other stuff in the house and garage and in all of the old, familiar places in the lakeside village in western New York, where he and Arlene had summered since they themselves were children.

The whole novel takes place over the course of the week leading up to Labor Day, but the place triggers so many memories in the Maxwell adults that we find out quite a bit about how their pasts. The week goes by much too quickly for them, despite the initial rainy weather. On the other hand, the vacation seems to Lise, the only in-law, to stretch on endlessly and the children, who don’t have as long of a shared past, have plenty of time to dream their own dreams of the future and develop their own alliances, not old enough to mourn the passing of an era.

So many themes run through the novel that it would be impossible to list them all, but it was interesting to read Wish You Were Here at the same time as I listened to Stewart O’Nan’s later novel, Songs for the Missing, because I noticed a shared theme. In Wish You Were Here, a small subplot is the ongoing mystery of what happened to a local girl who vanished without a trace from her job as a convenience store clerk; in Songs for the Missing, a teen girl disappears in a similar fashion right at the beginning of the story. In Wish You Were Here, the Maxwells’ only connection to the missing girl was that Kenneth, along with another gas-pumping customer, entered the store together to pay for gas and found it empty, neither one thinking much of it at the time. Each Maxwell family member reacts differently to the story as it hits the news,  but in Songs for the Missing the author is able to delve far more deeply into how people might respond to a potentially tragic event like this, especially people who knew and loved the missing girl.

Wish You Were Here is slower paced and longer than Maine by Courtney Sullivan, but both revolve around three generations sharing a summer house, so if you liked one you might like the other. Wish You Were Here reminded me of what I remember Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs – the conflicts between art and family life (Kenneth is a photographer trying to make it as an artist) and nostalgic indulgence vs. Yankee practicality (Emily is selling the house; the rest of the family doesn’t want it sold but can’t afford to buy it.)

After Wish You Were Here came out in 2002, Stewart O’Nan wrote a follow-up novel, Emily Alone, that was published in 2011 and  picks up the story of the Maxwell family in 2007, seven years after their final week at Lake Chautauqua. I listened to Emily Alone on audio last year, not realizing the characters were from a previous book, so the story stands on its own fine.

Wish You Were Here
O’Nan, Stewart
Grove Press, 2002978-0802117151, hardcover
978-0-8021-3989-4, paperback

Disclosure: I purchased this copy used, probably from a library book sale.

TBR Pile Challenge badgeYay! This review counts towards my TBR Pile Challenge goal of reading 12 specific books from my Roof Beam Reader-certified To Be Read list.

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Real Lives of Year-Rounders on Nantucket: Summerland by Elin Hilderbrand

cover image of SummerlandYes, I know, Summerland by Elin Hilderbrand came out LAST summer, and I’ve just gotten around to reading it. I’m even later to the Elin Hilderbrand party than that, because this Massachusetts author had already hit the New York Times bestseller list twice (with The Island and Silver Girl) before Summerland, her eleventh novel, and Summerland is the first one I’ve read to see what all the fuss is about.

Now I know. Elin Hilderbrand is the American answer to Penny Vincenzi. We don’t need to resort to reading about drinking tea and wearing wellies with the English middle and upper middle classes anymore! We’ve got our own comfort reads we can sink into right here. With the added bonus that Elin Hilderbrand’s books’ Nantucket settings make her books perfect for reading while sunk into a beach chair with an American summertime drink close at hand. (Think Nantucket Cocktail.)

In Summerland, tragedy hits the island of Nantucket when a rising senior – the beautiful, talented and beloved Penny Alastair – drives a speeding car full of teens over an embankment after an unsanctioned party on the beach the night of high school graduation. Penny is killed instantly and her twin brother, Hobson – a handsome, gifted athlete, and all-around nice guy – is seriously injured. The two other teens in the car – Demeter, who has the almost empty bottle of Jim Beam in her bag and Jake, Penny’s longtime boyfriend – are physically unhurt, but mentally traumatized.

Summerland is about the responses to this tragic accident from different points of view – the teens themselves and their families and friends – as well as the response of the islanders as a whole. Nantucket isn’t just a summertime playground for the rich and famous, the author points out; this story is about real people. Granted, they are mostly all attractive and tanned and successful, but as this story shows, that doesn’t make them immune to tragedy.

Here’s a excerpt taken from near the beginning of the book, where we get the first-person plural point of view of the year-round inhabitants of Nantucket, who take a special hometown pride in the standout talents of Penny and Hobson Alastair, twin children of the widowed Zoe, a beautiful and talented chef with a house on the water.

There was a bittersweet element to June 16, graduation day, and as we walked off the field at the end of the ceremony, some of us said we would never forget this one in particular, either because the weather had been so spectacular or because Patrick Loom’s speech had been so poignant.
It was true that we would always remember graduation that year, but not for these reasons. We would remember graduation that year because it was that night, the night of June 16, that Penelope Alastair was killed.
What? the world cried out in disbelief. The world wanted the Nantucket that resided in its imagination: the one with the icy gin and tonic resting on the porch railing, the sails billowing in the wind, the ripe tomatoes nestled in the back of the farm truck. The world did not want to picture a seventeen-year-old girl dead, but the world needed to know what we knew; Nantucket was a real place.
Where tragic things sometimes happened.

If you are a Penny Vincenzi fan, you should definitely try Elin Hilderbrand’s books (and vice versa). Also, if you like books by Jacquelyn Mitchard, Elizabeth Berg, Anita Shreve, Liane Moriarty, or other writers of “women’s fiction” who tell a good and heartbreaking story including sharp observations of the way people behave during a crisis, moments of humor throughout, difficult problems that get at least partially resolved (or “sorted” if you’re reading Penny Vincenzi), and a hopeful and uplifting ending.

Read a 2012 interview with Elin Hilderbrand at BermudaOnion’s Weblog.

Summerland
Hilderbrand, Elin
Little, Brown, 2012
9780316099837
388 pp.
$26.99 U.S./$29.99 CAN

Disclosure: I borrowed this book from the public library.

Other (more timely) opinions on Summerland (all very good):
Beth Fish Reads
A Bookish Libraria
Under My Apple Tree

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Saving Your Family: The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls @SimonAudio (Audio)

cover image of The Silver Star audiobookThe Silver Star by Jeannette Walls is the author’s third book and sort-of second novel. Her first book, The Glass Castle, was a masterful memoir of family dysfunction; her second, Half Broke Horses, was subtitled “A True-Life Novel” because it is her maternal grandmother’s life story in the form of a novel, based mostly on her mother’s memories. (I haven’t read it.)

According to a New York Times article, after The Glass Castle was published in 2005, whenever the author was questioned about the veracity of the startling memoir of her dysfunctional parents, she would say it was all true and protest that she couldn’t write fiction. “I’ve got to do some serious backpedaling now,” she says in the New York Times interview promoting her new work of fiction, The Silver Star, “I’ve got no more wacky relatives left to exploit!”

The audiobook of The Silver Star is narrated by the author, who has a slightly Southern accent, maybe, and describes the experience in this brief promotional video as “a hoot”. She identifies with Bean, the 12-year-old narrator of the story, who she says is a “linear thinker” – unlike her imaginative 15-year-old sister Liz and their wacky, careless mother, Charlotte – “she doesn’t make things up.” The author is an experienced media personality and she narrates the book very well, in a straightforward way, with sincerity, as if she actually remembers some of the events. And many times over the course of listening I thought how similar some of it was to The Glass Castle. Charlotte – living her dream and “finding the magic”, trying to make it big as a singer/songwriter – is temperamentally a lot like the author’s mother was described to be in The Glass Castle. There is no feckless, drunken father in The Silver Star, but when the girls are abandoned too long by their mother (whose absences they loyally try to hide from authorities for as long as they can), they run to their loving but ineffectual Uncle Tinsley living in the old family home in Virginia.

The author acknowledges the similarities in her books in that same promotional video about narrating The Silver Star:

I think fans of The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses will recognize…a lot. I think people write about what they know about and The Silver Star does draw on a number of childhood experiences. Sometimes they’re experiences that I didn’t cover for some reason or another and they continue to haunt me so I wanted to revisit them.” In addition to a number of events, a number of the themes from The Glass Castle also reemerge in The Silver Star, such as children taking on adult roles, taking on responsibilities that their parents maybe should have taken on.”

Writing a novel rather than a memoir, the author has more freedom to embellish, change events around, and add an entire plot line to build the story on. But knowing the author’s background from The Glass Castle, I felt like I was constantly filling in blanks when imagining the characters of Bean, Liz, and Charlotte. It’s hard for me to decide how successfully the author has made the transition to novelist because of that. I don’t know how well this novel would have done if it had been published first, as a work of fiction. I enjoyed listening to it and highly recommend the audiobook edition. I think the author’s narration helped a lot to sell me on the story and the characters as seen through the eyes of Bean.

The Silver Star will be a good choice for many book clubs because of its themes of family dysfunction, coming of age, and socioeconomic inequality. Also because (despite the disappointing failings of many of the main characters) there is a clear villain of the story (Jerry Maddox, evil mill foreman and enemy of Uncle Tinsley) and a true heroine (Bean herself.)

The Silver Star
Walls, Jeannette
Simon & Schuster Audio
June 2013
978-1-4423-6285-7
8 hrs on 7 CDs
$29.99

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this audiobook from the publisher for review.

Sound Bytes badgeThis review is linked up to Sound Bytes, a weekly link-up of audiobook reviews at Devourer of Books.

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