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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Turning from Everyday People's affecting portrayal of life -- and death -- in the predominantly black community of East Liberty, Pennsylvania, Stewart O'Nan introduces a very different group of everyday people -- the white, middle-class Maxwell family of Pittsburgh -- in Wish You Were Here. With his trademark empathy, intelligence, and impressive narrative gifts, O'Nan anatomizes the Maxwell family members with merciless precision as they spend a crucial, emotionally charged week in each other's company.
One year after the lingering death of family patriarch Henry Maxwell, his autocratic widow, Emily, invites her scattered family to spend a last vacation together at their Lake Chautauqua summer home, which she unilaterally has decided to sell after decades of ownership by the family. In August, three generations converge at the house, among them Henry's spinster sister, Arlene, a retired schoolteacher; Meg, the oldest daughter, whose "train wreck of a life" has encompassed alcoholism, financial disaster, and a recent divorce; and Ken, the distant, reserved younger child whose struggle to succeed as a freelance photographer has placed an added strain on his already complicated home life. Accompanying them are Ken's lonely, introspective wife, Lisa, and an assortment of children -- both Ken's and Meg's -- with issues and problems of their own.
The result of this confluence of characters and circumstances is a revelatory novel that illuminates the inner workings of a flawed, deeply credible American family. Using the archetypal materials of domestic life -- shared meals, family outings, and ongoing, eternally unresolved arguments -- O'Nan takes us into the shifting perspectives of eight very different people and one very old dog, showing us their fears, frustrations, longings, resentments, and secret dreams. In a flawlessly sustained, quietly dramatic narrative, he demonstrates the corrosive effects of time, memory, and disappointment on ordinary people driven by forces they can neither control nor fully comprehend. All of O'Nan's characters are superbly drawn, but special mention must be made of Ella, Ken and Lisa's quiet, "plain" daughter, whose emerging sexuality takes a strange, painfully unexpected turn.
Though it can -- and probably will -- be compared to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, Wish You Were Here is a singular, deeply felt work by a serious writer with his own distinctive vision of the world. It is a dark, funny, sorrowful book that strikes sparks of recognition on virtually every page. Bill Sheehan