It is difficult for an author to get out of a genre once he has firmly ensconced himself in it. Readers at first looked askance at Stephen King when DIFFERENT SEASONS was published. What?! Where are the vampires? No school gyms set on fire?!! Not even a good plague? DIFFERENT SEASONS ultimately gained wide acceptance, of course, thanks to a couple of movies based on tales within that volume. But it was a rough road for a minute or two. It's even worse for other authors. Ask Robert Parker, who will immediately tell you that of all the novels he has written, his favorite is...ALL OUR YESTERDAYS, which has no one named Spenser in it and which, according to Parker, sold abysmally.
Readers like some familiarity, if not predictability. You're not going to buy a children's book by Anne Rice for your five-year-old (not without reading it very carefully beforehand, anyhow). A book by Tom Clancy titled PEACE BE TO YOU: How America Can Love Its Enemies would, I think, stiff almost immediately. It's a truism: certain authors become associated with certain types of books.
Which brings us to WISH YOU WELL by David Baldacci. We're used to tales of suspense and intrigue from Baldacci, double-crosses and intrigue and lawyers and government agents and the like. And in WISH YOU WELL, we get...well, there is a lawyer in it, and some angry farmers set a neighbor's barn on fire, which I guess is either intrigue or a double-cross; but that notwithstanding, you're not going to get your standard Baldacci fare here.
WISH YOU WELL primarily concerns Louisa Mae ("Lou") and Oz Cardinal, the children of a well-known but financially struggling author. An automobile accident kills their father, leaves their mother catatonic, and yanks the children from their familiar big city life into the comparatively primitive environment of 1940 rural Virginia. The children and their vegetative mother are sent to live with Louisa Cardinal, Lou and Oz's great-grandmother. Louisa raised their father on her small, barely self-sustaining farm; now she is raising his children. Baldacci's plain, straightforward prose paints a stark but optimistic picture of a simple, difficult, but ultimately happy existence, as the children slowly adjust to life away from the comforts of their previous lives.
While WISH YOU WELL is most definitely a novel, it reads like a series of progressive vignettes, each chapter telling a small story of gains and losses, happiness and regret, strength and fragility, while maintaining a cohesiveness within the greater whole of the novel. The pacing is in keeping with the subject matter; things move along in their own time. Baldacci weaves crises throughout the book --- crop failures, land losses, unexpected death --- but the drama here is on a smaller, more personal scale than his readers are accustomed to. The climax to these events, while inspiring, is not particularly unexpected, either. This type of book has been done before; the only surprise here is that it has never been done by Baldacci, who, interestingly enough, does it quite well.
The genesis of WISH YOU WELL is Baldacci's heritage. His people came from rural Virginia, and WISH YOU WELL is a synthesis of imagination and stories of hard scrabble farm life that he heard from relatives while growing up. Baldacci describes the writing of this novel as one of the most rewarding experiences of his life. It is doubtful, however, that his regular readers will find it so, though it will certainly attract a new audience to him.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on September 1, 2001
Wish You Well