Thursday, August 2, 2012

Wish You Were Here

My book group at the library met last night to discuss this book by Stewart O'Nan. I had read it several years ago, as it interested me because it takes place at Lake Chautauqua, where my brother Tom and sister-in-law Evie have a cottage on the lake, and where my family has gone to visit most every summer for the past 31 years. So a lot of the book was familiar to me,  the dinners outside, morning coffee on the dock, boat rides around the lake,  the visits to the Lighthouse and the Casino, the campground, Webb's, the Lenhart,  Mayville, and the Institute of course.  But this is the story of Emily, who is selling the family's cottage after the death of her husband, Henry, a year earlier.  This is the last week the family will be together at the cottage where they have spent every summer--Emily and her sister-in-lawArlene, Emily's daughter Margaret and her two children Sarah and Sam, and her son Kenneth and his wife Lisa and two children Ella and Justin. The story takes place over a week, and each chapter is devoted to one day. From the start there is friction--between Emily and her daughter, Emily and daughter-in-law Lisa, Kenneth and Lisa, it seems everyone has a problem, mostly with Emily. And yet I found Emily to be one of the more likable characters in the book. Some people in our group thought she was too brash, too critical, but there was something about her I liked, maybe her matter of fact-ness and the way she said what she thought. The story alternates between the voices of each of the characters, even the dog's, so you know what everyone is thinking but not always saying. Of course there are issues lurking behind all this ordinariness, Margaret is a recovering alcoholic, Sam likes to steal things, Ella is lusting after her sexy cousin, Ken has lost his job. This is not a plot-driven book--there is not a lot going on, and nothing is resolved at the end, except that the cottage will be sold, despite some half-hearted pleas from Emily's grown children. We all admired O'Nan's writing, and his talent for describing the details of ordinary life and ordinary people. You feel like you are there with them in the small, cramped bathroom, the sleeping rooms upstairs, the garage packed with old tools,  with the half-finished puzzle on the table. Maybe a little too much detail, he could have tightened it up some.

The book brought up a lot of discussion about family vacations, of course, and the dynamics of family members spending a week together. I have happy memories of Lake Chautauqua, so I found the story kind of sad and depressing. Not one of these characters is very happy, and I found it sad that it is as Margaret is driving away from the cottage on her way home that she says "It was strange how she felt, away from them, as if she were realizing only now what they meant to her." There is a sense of nostalgia throughout the book, as they all seem kind of lost without Henry, and you wonder how much Henry held them all together. Some of the most poignant passages are Arlene's memories of her childhood summers at the cottage with her brother Henry,  and Emily's remembrances of her honeymoon when the family takes a day trip to Niagara Falls. At the end of our discussion someone asked, "Even though we didn't like most of the characters in the book did you think they were realistic, do you know people like this" to which everyone wholeheartedly agreed they did.

Our group always likes to discuss the significance of the title.  Some people thought it referred to Henry, and his absence, and wishing he were there. Others thought (including me) it was like the postcard message, "Wish You Were Here."

I don't think it is O'Nan's best book, but I enjoyed re-reading it, if only for the Chautauqua connection.

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