Maybe it is the nostalgic mood I have found myself in lately, but Stewart O'Nan's WISH YOU WERE HERE struck a chord with me --- a very familiar, familial chord.
WISH YOU WERE HERE is the story of three generations of Maxwells vacationing together for one final time in the their Lake Chautauqua summer cottage. It is a year since the death of Henry Maxwell, the family patriarch, and Emily, his widow, has gathered the family to divvy up the household belongings before selling the beloved summer retreat. In her company is Arlene, Henry's spinster sister, who misses her brother perhaps even more than his own wife does. Emily and Henry's son Ken, a novice photographer, has brought along his jealous often sullen wife Lisa and their children --- Sam, who has a penchant for stealing small pocket-sized items, and Ella, who is struggling with her budding sexuality. Emily's other child Meg is headed for divorce and is fighting alcoholism while raising a squeamish Justin and the family ingénue, Sarah. They are a motley group, bound in a battle against oppressive weather of both the natural and the emotional kind. I have taken this family vacation, and O'Nan's descriptions of the sibling attachments, teenage angst, and paternal protectiveness are dead on...dead on descriptions of every family.
O'Nan expertly gives us the voices of each character, their desires and deeds, their laments and longings, their reactions and realities. Each is beautifully drawn out in their subtle complexities. The reader is made privy to their vulnerabilities and their most secret of secrets as each whispers private thoughts or recalls long-tucked away memories of former lives and loves. I can't recall the last time I read a book that so fully revealed to me the very heart and soul of each character as if they were members of my own family and I was, after many years, many interactions, just now seeing who they truly are and what moves them. Their unique perspectives filter one decision --- the choice to sell the house and the memories of father and family that it represents --- and we see clearly the profound affect this decision is having on each one, from the youngest to the oldest. In seven days the book witnesses several lifetimes.
We all own possessions; we all value them. O'Nan poses the question "where does the 'thing' end and the attachment begin"? Emily, the mother, would have us believe, in her not so convincing stoicism, that she would not "miss the Old Westinghouse with its untrustworthy burners, the clock that hadn't worked since the mid-seventies, the broiler that cut out without warning." I was not convinced of her detachment, and this is exactly what O'Nan wants us to see. How can one not miss something that one has achieved such a high level of intimacy with? She did not fool me. Ken, surveying the room he has slept in each summer since his childhood, thought, "The room was so full of history he had to fend it off." He tries to employ a defense mechanism but in the end he cannot detach from his past. Emily would define the family's dilemma: Time was not a circle or a line, but a kitchen, a lamp, an armchair. The things we surround ourselves with carry our stories, our histories. And finally, near the end of the week, Emily admits to herself, "she would miss this place, it was that simple."
WISH YOU WERE HERE celebrates all ages as it delves into a family treasure trove of remembrances, as it collects the family legacies to parcel out amongst the remaining living members, and as it recollects the tales that have brought them to this point in their conjoined lives. It is an all-too-familiar and exquisitely poignant reflection on themes we have all encountered or will encounter in our own lives and our own clans.
Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on January 24, 2011
Wish You Were Here