Wish 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
Grove Press, 2002978-0802117151, hardcover
Disclosure: I purchased this copy used, probably from a library book sale.
Yay! This review counts towards my TBR Pile Challenge goal of reading 12 specific books from my Roof Beam Reader-certified To Be Read list.