Wish You Were Here, Stewart O'Nan, Grove Press, 2002, 517 pp
Have you ever spent a week in the summer with extended family? As a child it is non-stop fun with cousins and outdoor activities. As a teenager it is mostly a crushing bore. As adults, it is more work than vacation: the meals, the clean up, the excursions, sharing bathrooms and bedrooms. As grandparents, possibly you look forward to it all year, but when the week comes you are quickly exhausted by all the random activity of having so many people in such close quarters.
The scenario of Wish You Were Here includes all of the above. Grandmother Emily, who lost her husband to cancer some months ago; Margaret, the black-sheep recovering alcoholic daughter who is about to be divorced with her teenage girl and eleven-year-old son. Kenneth is the nice but dreamy son who just quit his job to pursue being a photographer, with wife Lisa, teen girl and eleven-year-old son. In addition is spinster Aunt Arlene, sister of Emily's dead husband. They are all crammed into the family summer cabin on Lake Chautauqua in New York State. It will be their last time there before the cabin is sold.
Stewart O'Nan is a realist writer. Every object, meal, mood, activity and surrounding area is enumerated in exquisite detail, like an early French slice-of-life novel. In 517 pages, seven days are covered from waking to bedtime. The pace is about the same as what I remember from teenage visits to my grandparents. And of course, there are constant issues. Should we drink around Margaret? Kenneth's wife is rather an insecure, spoiled brat who is jealous of her husband's closeness with his family and annoyed constantly by Emily. It goes on and on.
As I was doggedly plowing along through those seven days and going slowly crazy, I wondered if any of the thousands of tense scenes would ever explode into some action or tragedy or release (they don't). It suddenly struck me. The author has exactly created what such a week is like from each viewpoint: grandmother, adult children, daughter-in-law, teen girl, young boy. Emily talks just the way my mother did and has similar quirks. The high maintenance daughter-in-law could have been me in my younger married years.
Honestly it was as if O'Nan held up a mirror to my extended families, of which I have had three, since I divorced and remarried. As I read, I felt exposed, self-conscious, sometimes ashamed and once in a while amused.
I don't know that it did me any good to read this novel. I made it to the end as did Emily's family make it through the week, relieved to know I could go back to my usual life. I guess that was the point. We all have families, we are all self-involved and petty. Along with the fun of such gatherings is a somehow equal level of annoyance. I may never attend another family reunion but if I do, I am not sure if I will laugh or cry. I will certainly know that my family is not that much different from anyone else's and that we are all just a little bit crazy.