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Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, Canada
My virtue is that I say what I think, my vice that what I think doesn't amount to much.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Wish You Were Here

This is Stewart O'Nan's novel of the Maxwell family on their final vacation at their summer cottage in Chautauqua, New York.

Emily, the recently widowed mother, has decided to sell the cottage. She takes the last trip there with her sister-in-law, Arlene. The two women have a relationship that borders on antagonism. Meg, Emily's black sheep daughter, is struggling through a divorce. Her kids have been damaged by her alcoholism and emotional volatility and they are missing their dad. Ken, Meg's brother, is a bit of a milquetoast who is viewed as a failure by his mother and his wife, Lise. He's given up a "real job" to pursue photography. Their son exhibits borderline disturbed behaviour and his older sister is a bit of a dowdy misfit who develops a crush on her female cousin.

I picked up the novel because I have vacationed in Chautauqua and I read O'Nan's The Good Wife and liked it. I like this one too but I read it on a trip to Argentina and think I would have enjoyed it more had I read it on my deck at home.

O'Nan describes the irritable chafing that occurs between members of a family thrown together on what is supposed to be a happy vacation. Ken's wife, Lise, suffers most. She is jealous of the relationship Ken has with his mother, Emily, and his sister, Meg, and spends the week waiting for the holiday to end. Ken is the peacekeeper. Arlene, a retired teacher, also does her best to smooth the rough edges. We learn that she had a tragic love affair that left her hurt but not terribly embittered. Meg just doesn't give a damn. She says what she wants and smokes pot to make up for the alcohol she can no longer drink. She misses her husband but can't see the part she may have played in driving him away. The kids are mostly a mess. Whether this is transient angst or something more serious remains to be seen.

Nothing happens (not that I'm complaining). I kept waiting for the poor old spaniel to die or the sidebar abduction story to explode. But this is like real life and the focus is on the conflict that lies beneath the surface in families. The novel's authenticity resonated with me, sometimes uncomfortably; I'm glad I read it.

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