Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Wish You Were Here by Stewart O'Nan

When things get tough, Stewart O'Nan is my go-to guy.  He is always on the shelves at the library.  He's not difficult to read.  I don't have to turn on my brain to analyze him and yet the depth of his perception into  people - especially women - jumps off of the pages.  Always depressing and never uplifting, O'Nan's realistic portrayal of life is comforting because he doesn't pretend.  There's no hope for a happily-ever-after ending, no certainty of a literary climax that elevates the power of the human spirit.  Reading his novels always reminds me that no human can fix the brokenness in my life.

Wish You Were Here is the story of the Maxwell's, a family who is spending a week at their lake cottage for the very last time.  Emily Maxwell, the matriarch of the family, has decided to sell the cottage because in the wake of her husband's death, she can't care for it any more.  She arranges for her son and his family, her daughter and her children, and her sister-in-law to join her in remembering the past while cleaning it out for the future.

Nothing exciting happens in this book.  The narrative explores what a family does on vacation, from eating hamburgers to put-put golf to squashing a fly that escapes the outdoor hear.  But every single page has astonishing insight into the thoughts of kids, teenagers, middle-age parents, and retirees.  As the narrator of Wish You Were Here can read the minds of all the characters, the readers gets a glimpse into thoughts that, well, stunned this reader.    Ken, the 40-something year old son of Emily, had some thoughts about his wife's behavior that made me pause more than a few times.  I was familiar with the mind of Lisa, a 40-something year old wife of Ken:  "Sometimes she was dissatisfied, and when she said anything, Ken made her feel like she expected too much.  She felt caught in an opera, wanted daily to be ravaged by passion, and then, doing the dishes, picking up after the kids, thought it was just her age. She wasn't the only woman bored at forty, wondering what had gone wrong."  I wondered if my teenager thinks any of the thoughts that 13-year old Sarah had.  When her father asks how she is doing, she responds with what her dad wants to hear, but this is what she was thinking:   "Terrible, she wanted to say, but he didn't really want to know about her and Mark, or how long this summer had been, and she didn't really want to tell him.  'Good,' she said, and waited for him to say something else. It was easier this way."  How many times have my kids told me what I wanted to hear because it was easier that way?

So actually, something exciting DOES happen in this book.  Because of the piercing narrative unhindered by pretense, the reader is able to hear the voices in her life that are often masked by figurative ear pods vibrating the sounds that she wants to hear.  Because the characters are developed in such detail, the reader is not likely to easily forget what the 11-year old is thinking when the mom responds to him in sarcasm about his screen time, or what the words are that the husband withholds to avoid a confrontation.

Is it futile to read 516 pages of hopelessness in the human spirit?  No way.  It's a realistic portrayal of this life on this earth and a reminder that there's nothing I can do to give myself a happy ending.