Thursday, May 3, 2007

Wish You Were Here, as promised

Despite not being Notes on a Scandal, this book had several things that attracted me to it. First, it shares a title with one of my favorite Pink Floyd songs. Second, it's by Stewart O'Nan, who wrote The Circus Fire, which I liked more than was decent for a book about one of the worst civic disasters in the country's history. Third, it is set near where I grew up, in Chatauqua. Sounds like a winner to me.

The book made me terribly sad. I do try to be careful about spoiling the endings of books I write about here, but I will go out on a limb here and let everyone know in advance that the dog survives the entire book, even though he's old, and even though he ominously gets left alone several times. Don't worry. He's not a metaphor for aging and loss. He is just a dog.

The sadness centers around the rest of the family. This family, the Maxwells, have been coming to a cottage on Lake Chatauqua in the southwest corner of New York State, for decades. With the death of the father, Henry, the mother (Emily) decides to sell the cottage, but brings everyone back there for one last week. "Everyone" consists of her sister-in-law, Arlene; her daughter Meg; Meg's two children, Sarah (about 13) and Justin (about 9); her son Ken; Ken's wife Lisa and their children Ella and Sam (roughly the same age as Meg's children).

During the week, we see the complex family bonds sometimes shift subtly, and at other times get more firmly knitted into place. Ken has a separate persona for his sister, his wife, and his mother, and he never really resolves this during the week. In fact, the reader can tell that he'll continue to struggle with it until the death of at least one, if not two, of the principals. In contrast, Meg has always had a tumultous relationship with her mother, but it appears as though they are finally starting to reconcile.

The week at the cottage represents the end of a phase in their lives. For Meg and Ken, it's a realization that they really are all grown up, their dad is gone, and that their allegiances must now lie with the families they've made, not the family they grew up with. For the older generation of Emily and Arlene, it's the end of their lives itself that is staring them in the face. They've seen the area change and lose its quaint feel, they've watched their friends get old and die, they know that the new owner of the cottage may knock it down altogether.

This sense of loss throws the rest of their lives into sharp relief. Ken is a struggling photographer who works in a development lab for $8.50 an hour. Meg is a recovering alcoholic, freshly divorced, struggling financially, faced with the horrifying prospect of starting it all over. Both take long, hard looks at their lives during the week, and both come up wanting. The hopefulness is in Emily and Arlene, whose choices have been made, and who are relatively content with the way their lives have gone, even Arlene, who never married or had children.

This book could've been horribly sappy, but Stewart O'Nan has managed to avoid this trap and get to the real emotions underneath. I would imagine that most people would be able to find someone to relate to in this book. I enjoyed it and was sorry to finish it.

I'm going to visit my boyfriend this weekend, so I'm not sure when I'll start a new one. As always, I will keep you posted!

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