At a writer’s conference this past December, I had the privilege of receiving a quick tutorial from author, Stewart O’Nan, on what makes a book interesting.
“It’s all about the relationships between the characters,” he said, “it’s the little feelings the characters have about each other.” And those little feelings are the sum total of his latest work, Wish You Were Here [Grove Press].
Wish You Were Here is about a family vacation at the Upstate resort of Lake Chautauqua, where time creeps on and every change is a bittersweet reminder of the past. The family cabin is about to be sold and the possessions divvyed up as the family tries hard to tolerate each other, discovering the same little sad facts and inadequacies about themselves that they’re trying hard to blame on the others.
I began this book expecting to love it, and there are some things about it that I do: the quiet desperation of individual lives afraid of true intimacy; the unspoken grief over the loss of their patriarch. But the joy, or whatever it is, ends there. Like the chipped salt shakers found in a flea market or dear old Dad’s hi-ball glasses with antique automobiles, there are some wonderful details here, but not enough to base a 500+ page story on. Wish You Were Here is a slow and sometimes ponderous read, full of negative, self-loathing characters that give the reader very little to latch on to. It’s hard to care about any of them, and even harder to keep interested. O’Nan, whose more than proven his skill in writing with admirable, notable works such as Snow Angels, The Names of the Dead, and the nonfiction, The Circus Fire, needs to come back from his vacation.