Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Wish You Were Here by Stewart O'Nan

Wish You Were Here
by Stewart O'Nan
Grove Press, 2002
517 pages

Summary (from amazon):

A deep, poignant study of a family fighting its inner demons awaits in Stewart O'Nan's Wish You Were Here. A year after the death of her husband, Emily Maxwell gathers her immediate family together at their summer home on Lake Chautauqua in western New York for a final sendoff and to dole out keepsakes before the new owners move in. Joining Emily is her daughter, Meg, fresh from rehab and upset over her imminent divorce, and Meg's children: the emotionally unstable Justin, and Sarah, a teenage beauty learning to use her charms. Ken, Emily's fortyish slacker son, and his wife, Lisa, also bunk down for the week, bringing along their two kids: the troubled Sam, and Ella, a plain, smart girl who finds herself with a crush on her cousin, Sarah....

Wish You Were Here is an excellent character study of a family grudgingly plodding forward while believing the best chance for happiness passed by sometime ago.

My thoughts:

Novels about family relationships almost always interest me, but throw in a lakeside setting and it becomes irresistible. The cover blurb promises "the perfect summer-by-the-lake read" and that's exactly what O'Nan delivers.

Wish You Were Here is divided into sections - one for each day of the vacation. There is little action in this relatively quiet novel. The characters don't change or grow (it's only one week), but the reader really gets to know them and, by the end, understand them, too. O'Nan also pays close attention to detail, whether it is a description of the natural surroundings, a round of golf, or subtle nuances of the characters' interactions. This author gets it!

There were at least a couple of instances where plot lines could have been wrapped up (too) neatly and easily but, happily, this resolution was not chosen. Real life isn't necessarily tidy and neither is this novel.

Favorite Quotes:
"The lake had gone calm, flags limp at the end of the docks. The sun hung just above the treetops, throwing shadows. In the field across the road, a family of rabbits was out, feeding under the apple trees. They stayed close to the bushy edge of the field, brown balls in the dark light, cheeks working as they nibbled the grass. He counted five, one just a baby. This was what he would miss after the cottage was gone, these slow moments." p. 31
"Her mother wanted a list of five things she wanted, like it was a game show, a lottery. What she wanted-she could admit it now, alone and stoned-was to be young again, to try it all over: love, family, everything. That wasn't what her mother was offering, just furniture, mementos, souvenirs of another life. It was all gone, she thought. With the cottage, they could pretend it wasn't, but it was, as sure as Jeff would never come back to her or Sarah would never love her like a child again. Time destroyed everything." p. 131
"There was nothing to be afraid of. That life was behind her now- not gone, no, it was still a part of her, but it belonged to the past, and she needed to keep it there, to relinquish her grip on it, as hard as that might be, if not impossible." p. 463

My rating:

Next up is Emily, Alone, a sequel to Wish You Were Here.


  1. I have a weakness for books about family relationships too, this one sounds interesting. Thanks for the review.

  2. Love the quotes from this! I was impressed with the other book by him I read, and certainly would not be averse to reading this one!

  3. This one sounds right up my alley. I love those quiet books where it "appears" as if nothing much is happening.

  4. This book appeals to me. I like quiet, contemplative books revolving around the relationships in a family. Not too many out there. The last quote was sad but hopeful in a way. Good review.

  5. Family dysfunction is a tough sell these days because there are just so many of them out there. But when it works, it works. I like the fact that the author didn't take the easy way out. There are no "Easy" buttons in life!

  6. Sam - I initially wanted to read Emily, Alone then realized it was a sequel to Wish You Were Here.

    Rhapsodyinbooks - I marked so many passages in this book, it was hard to narrow it down.

    Staci - I think you'll like this! The sequel is just as good, too.

    Margot - The last quote is from Emily. She's the subject of the sequel Emily, Alone... and I'm loving it so far.

    Sandy - But there are days when I'd sure welcome an 'Easy' button ;-)

  7. I can't resist a novel about family relationships either. This sounds like a good one to add to my list.

  8. Kathleen - Yes, definitely add this one... the more I think about it, the more I like it!

  9. Whenever I see Stewart O'Nan's name I think, I have to check out his books see what he writes and how he writes. This book certainly sounds like one that would interest me. I especially like your favorite quotes...they really pique my interest in this book.

  10. Amy - I just finished the sequel Emily, Alone today. It was amazing. O'Nan, a 50 year old guy, writing from the perspective of an 80 year old woman is a marvel. Probably not a great book for someone under 45 though..


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