Tag Archives: summer read

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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Guilty English Pleasure: More Than You Know by Penny Vincenzi

English author Penny Vincenzi‘s books are like granola bars – not much more nutritious than candy, but their mini chocolate chips and tiny marshmallows or sweetened dried cranberries satisfy a candy craving, with a few nutritious oats and nuts tossed in.
None of the author’s later books have ever appealed to me as much as The Spoils of Time trilogy, a saga of the Lytton publishing family in London. (The start of the trilogy, No Angel, was the first of her books to be published in the U.S. – in 2004 – and several books later, that’s the one that’s still mentioned on the cover of this one.) But I still find her books addictive, and whip right through each new one.
In More Than You Know, fashion journalism and fashion design in the sixties (which the author had first-hand experience of) form the backdrop of the drama that plays out when headstrong career-girl Eliza Fullerton-Clark – whose shabby genteel parents are struggling to maintain their large village house, Summercourt – falls for the working-class, chip-on-his-shoulder Matt Shaw – who is well on his way to making his first fortune in property development. Money and class; marriage and career; tradition and changing times…all these make for a stormy relationship between Eliza and Matt, eventually bringing them to the brink of the vicious child custody battle alluded to at the beginning of the book.
But that’s just one of the multiple story strands that readers of More Than You Know will be following. Along with the relationship ups-and-downs of Eliza’s brother and Matt’s sister (not together), Eliza’s ex-beau Jeremy (handsome and rich, like Matt, but from Eliza’s upper-class world), and friends of Matt’s or Eliza’s, there are soaring or flattening career arcs – with Eliza caught between motherhood and her burgeoning fashion journalism career and Matt working with cutthroat competition (sometimes within his own office) – the siren call of the kinds of temptation that the swinging sixties and seventies were rife with, parenting struggles, and too many other plot threads to mention, all switching back and forth across each other.
Penny Vincenzi is a master of the sexy, literary potboiler. More Than You Know will be devoured by her fans, but it might not be the one to hook a new reader unless the London fashion scene is a big draw. I still recommend No Angel if you’re trying to decide whether you’ll like Penny Vincenzi or not.

Disclosure: I received an e-galley of this book from Doubleday through NetGalley.

More Than You Know (published as The Decision in the U.K.)
Vincenzi, Penny
Doubleday
Pub Date: April 3, 2012
978-0-385-52825-2
608 pp.
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