WISH YOU WERE HERE
Stewart O'Nan, Author . Grove/Atlantic $25 (517p) ISBN 978-0-8
O'Nan relies on a patient accumulation of detail instead of a focused dramatic arc to achieve a Vermeer-like realism in his latest novel. His strategy is to record minutely the thoughts and actions of all nine members of the extended Maxwell family as they spend a week at their family summer house, until their smallest gestures become familiar to the reader. Now that her husband, Henry, is dead, Emily Maxwell, the matriarch of the clan, is selling the family retreat near Chautauqua, N.Y. Emily and her sister-in-law, Arlene, drive up together from Pittsburgh for a last summer visit; Emily's son, Ken, and his wife, Lise, come next with their two children; and finally Emily's daughter, Meg, and Meg's son and daughter arrive. For seven days the Maxwells interact, with Emily's disappointment in her children prompting them to assess their lives themselves. Meg, a recovering alcoholic, is in the middle of a divorce. Kenneth is a failed photographer, whose latest low-paying job is in a photo lab. Lise, his wife, dislikes Emily, and is jealous of Ken and Meg's closeness. The children, whose tensions are wholly other than those of the adults, are tracked just as closely, with O'Nan's account of Ken's 13-year-old daughter Ella's budding crush on her cousin Sarah, also 13, becoming one of the high points of the novel. Various subplots evolve, especially one concerning a kidnapped local store clerk. At times the story is smothered by its own accumulative logic; yet in clinging so relentlessly to the surface of his world, O'Nan slowly pulls the reader into it.
Reviewed on: 03/18/2002