Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Wish You Were Here

by Stewart O’Nan

“[O’Nan’s] finest and deepest novel to date . . . The action rises and ebbs with the rhythms of daily life—meals, swimming, after-dinner videos, the children’s bedtime. . . . The general absence of melodrama allows O’Nan to focus on the characters, and he draws them with sympathy and subtlety, especially the women.” —Ruth Franklin, The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 528
  • Publication Date May 21, 2003
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3989-4
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00

About The Book

Award-winning writer Stewart O’Nan has been acclaimed by critics as one of the most accomplished novelists writing today. Now comes “his most complete work to date, filled with the type of life lessons that the best fiction has to offer and from an author firmly in control of his art” (Rob Stout, Orlando Sentinel). A year after the death of her husband, Henry, Emily Maxwell gathers her family by Lake Chautauqua in western New York for what will be a last vacation at their summer cottage. Joining is her sister-in-law, who silently mourns the sale of the lake house, and a long-lost love. Emily’s firebrand daughter, a recovering alcoholic recently separated from her husband, brings her children from Detroit. Emily’s son, who has quit his job and mortgaged his future to pursue his art, comes accompanied by his children and his wife, who is secretly heartened to be visiting the house for the last time.

Memories of past summers resurface, old rivalries flare up, and love is rekindled and born anew, resulting in a timeless novel that “succeeds beautifully . . . showcases some of the finest character studies a contemporary reader could ask for” (Cynthia Dockrell, The Boston Globe).

Tags Literary


“[O’Nan’s] finest and deepest novel to date . . . The action rises and ebbs with the rhythms of daily life—meals, swimming, after-dinner videos, the children’s bedtime. . . . The general absence of melodrama allows O’Nan to focus on the characters, and he draws them with sympathy and subtlety, especially the women.” —Ruth Franklin, The New York Times Book Review

Wish You Were Here offers a stark and brilliantly mesmerizing glimpse into the lives of the Maxwells, the most aggressively average American family this side of The Corrections. . . . The joy of the novel—and O’Nan’s triumph—is the subtle manner in which the alternating voices draw in the reader. You read on less to find out what happens to the Maxwells than to become better acquainted with the characters, whom O’Nan makes fascinating and familiar. Here are ‘our real lives.’” —Joanna Smith Rakoff, The Los Angeles Times

“O’Nan reveals how close a good and caring family can sit by disaster with disaster nevertheless held in abeyance.” —Peter Temes, The Baltimore Sun

“Marvelous. . . . Readers will not have to wish they were here. From his slow start to his gentle resolution, O’Nan will transport them, and the familiarity of this fictional tribe will harass and lull them in turn, just like family in real life.” —Susan Hall-Balduf, The Detroit Free Press

“Riveting. . . . O’Nan has written the perfect summer-by-the-lake read. . . . This is the landscape of family Jonathan Franzen illuminates in The Corrections, or Jane Smiley in Ordinary Love.” —Brian Bouldrey, The Chicago Tribune

“Filled with the type of life lessons that the best fiction has to offer. . . . [O’Nan] conveys this through a sprawling, generously written saga that imparts exceptional insights into the human heart.” —Rob Stout, The Charlotte Observer

“O’Nan’s carefully detailed narrative results in rich character studies.” —Nancy Pate, The Orlando Sentinel

“[An] affectionate, resonant book. . . . Wish You Were Here reminds the reader of the petty jealousies and deep wounds, the faults and the forgiveness, the prejudices and the trust that make families so alike—and in their precise details, so different.” —Tara Burghart, The Worcester Telegram & Gazette

“An elegy for a lost father, a lost past, and for lost dreams. . . . With deft sympathy, O’Nan chronicles the reactions of nine family members. . . . the nature of families, the nature of life, and [his] exquisitely ordinary portrait is tantamount to a sparkling epiphany.” —Mary A. McCay, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

“The tableau of daily life is expertly painted, and O’Nan takes time with his story, drawing the reader into a world created with unwavering confidence. . . . For this author of seemingly limitless scope, perhaps this novel will prove to be O’Nan’s ‘breakout book.’” —Irina Reyn, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“It’s hard not to admire O’Nan’s earnestness and his compassion for his characters.” —Andrew Roe, The San Francisco Chronicle

“O’Nan has an immense range and an ear for the perfect pitch of the human heart. Three generations of the Maxwell family gathers for a final visit to their summerhouse, one year after the death of the family patriarch. Take this book with you on vacation, but be warned: You may be so compelled by the Maxwell’s gathering, you’ll be late to join your own!” —Cathy Keibler, Hawley-Cooke Booksellers, Louisville, KY, Book Sense quote

“Affectionate. . . . Tells a lifetime of stories. . . . O’Nan is as comfortable and enlightening inside the mind of a never-married schoolteacher as he is inside that of a shy, video game-obsessed 8-year-old.” —The Morristown Citizen Tribune

“Fine prose and lovely strokes of portraiture from . . . [an] ambitious and gifted writer.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Stewart O’Nan loves us and forgives us and watches us when we aren’t looking. And he has given us this big, fine, openhearted book in which the inner and outer lives of a family come together, with depth and art.” —Amy Bloom

“Stewart O’Nan’s Wish You Were Here is an unflinching portrait of an American family that’s remarkable for its precision, intelligence, and heart. You will not soon forget these people.” —Richard Russo

“How much Stewart O’Nan knows about his characters, young and old, male and female, and how masterfully he translates that knowledge into language! Wish You Were Here is a novel of unusual grace, power, and beauty—and a complete pleasure.” —Margot Livesey

“With Wish You Were Here, Stewart O’Nan reveals his consummate understanding of family, its minor jealousies, the importance of secrets, slips from grace and the forgiveness of those slips, and faith in spit of all else gone before. The tensions that simmer among the Maxwell family over this final summer by the lake are profoundly human, and Wish You Were Here offers the sort of illustration of our bonds that makes you want to pick up the phone and call home, to make amends, to make certain your love is known.” —Ashley Warlick

“With each novel, Stewart O’Nan breaks new ground. And in this fond, generous book he gives us the life of each memorable character as well as the lives the Maxwells live together. Here is a houseful—a family full—of story that is richly, affectionately told.” —Frederick Busch

Praise for Stewart O’Nan:

“I think that if you haven’t read Stewart O’Nan . . . you have some catching up to do.” —Stephen King, Entertainment Weekly


Winner of the Connecticut Book Award for Fiction
A New York Times Notable Book
A New York Times Book Review Notable Fiction
A Chicago Tribune Favorite Book
A Book Sense 76 Selection


Saturday — 1

They took Arlene’s car because it had air-conditioning and Emily wasn’t sure the Olds would make it. That and Arlene’s was bigger, a wagon, better for bringing things back.

Emily knew she wouldn’t be able to resist. She’d never learned to take even the smallest loss gracefully—a glass cracked in the dishwasher, a sweater shrunk by the dryer. She’d stuff the Taurus full of junk she didn’t have room for at home. All of it would end up down in the basement, moldering next to the extra fridge still filled to clinking with Henry’s Iron Citys. She didn’t drink beer, and she couldn’t bring herself to twist them open one by one and tip them foaming down the sink, so they stayed there, the crimped edges of the bottle caps going rusty, giving her vegetables a steely tinge. She would save what she could, she knew, though Henry himself would have shaken his head at the mess.

It would be the last time she made the trip up, the last time she saw the cottage. The closing would be handled by her attorney—Henry’s, really. She’d only spoken with him once in person, last fall, numbly going over the estate. Everything else was done by phone, or Federal Express, an expense she considered extravagant and feared she was paying for, but Henry had used Barney Pontzer for thirty years, and she trusted Henry’s judgment, in this case more than her own.

The cottage was three hours from the house, depending on 79. Saturdays could be bad. She wanted to leave around nine so they’d be there by lunchtime, but Arlene was late and then gave her a hard time about Rufus, ceremoniously laying a faded Steelers towel over the backseat. Emily assured her that he hadn’t been fed this morning, but Arlene kept tucking the towel into the crack. They’d had the exact same argument over Christmas, visiting Kenneth. It was so pointless. The car stunk of her Luckies and always would.

“He’s fine,” Emily insisted.

“Better safe.”

“He’s good about it now.”

“I was thinking more for the hair.”

“Oh please,” Emily said, trying to laugh, “a towel’s not going to do anything. I’ll vacuum it when we get there.”

Someone will have to.”

I will.”

These everlasting battles, Emily thought. Couldn’t Arlene see this trip was different? Henry attributed his sister’s obtuseness to her schoolteacher’s practicality, but Emily thought it was more ingrained than willful. Arlene seemed constantly on guard, afraid of somehow being cheated. It made sense: Henry had been the baby, their parents’ favorite, an engineer like his father. Her entire life Arlene had had to fight for the least bit of attention.

But they were all gone, Emily wanted to say. She could stop now.

Rufus had hip trouble, and she had to help him in. Arlene said nothing while she rearranged the towel. Truthfully, Rufus still got carsick, though no longer to the point of upchucking. Over the years he’d learned to keep his head down so the endless carousel of trees and fields no longer dizzied him, but he still hitched and hiccupped as if he was going to let loose. Instead he drooled, long gelatinous strings depending from his jowls, catching in his coat like spiderwebs. And all right, he was shedding heavily. It had been a beastly summer. The baseboards in the bedroom were drifted with dark clumps of fur that scattered at the approach of the vacuum, but that was natural for a springer spaniel.

Could she or Arlene say they’d aged more gracefully? Rufus was fourteen and had spent his every summer at the cottage. He deserved a last romp with the grandchildren, a last swim off the dock, a last snooze on the cool slab of the screenporch. She would Hoover Arlene’s seats if it came to that.

The house was locked, the windows closed, the machine on. She’d stopped the mail and cleaned out the hydrator. The Olds was purposely low, in case anyone broke into the garage with an idea of stealing it. Marcia next door had a key and the number up at Chautauqua. If she’d forgotten anything, she couldn’t think of it.

“And they’re off,” Emily said, turning her wrist over to check Henry’s Hamilton.

Arlene drove slowly, cozied up to the wheel, peering over her hands like the pilot of a ship in fog. It was already hot and the air-conditioning was heavenly. Shadows of trees fell sharply across the empty sidewalks. In yards browned with drought, sprinklers whisked and tilted. It felt good to be moving, leaving the still city, as if they were escaping a great palace while everyone slept.

Traffic was surprisingly light on the Boulevard of the Allies, the Monongahela brown and sluggish below, a coal train crawling along the far shore. The mile-long mills were gone, nothing but graded fields protected by chain-link fences. Downtown, the glittering new buildings rose behind them as they crossed the green Allegheny, the fountain at the Point spraying perfect white arcs, a barge pushing upriver beneath them, all of it like a postcard. In a week she would be back and it would seem hateful to her, she knew—or just discouraging, a reminder of what she’d given up and how little there was left.

Time, that was the difficulty now (it always was, only now she had no one to help her through it, someone besides herself to concentrate on). Mornings in her garden, afternoons at the Edgewood Club pool, nights reading while the radio played Brahms. She’d found her own quiet way of getting through the days, biding her time, trying not to badger Kenneth or Margaret to visit with the children. And it was right that she should still feel Henry, it was not so long that she shouldn’t miss him. Winter had been a trial, with the dark coming down early, but there were always those hardy perennials—British mysteries from the library, the new PBS special, lunch with Louise Pickering. She had her health, her teeth, her memory. She refused to become one of those old ladies who did nothing but moon aloud about the old days, speaking of their dead husbands as if they were just drinking in the next room. She’d never considered it a possibility before Henry got sick. Now she feared it had already happened, that transformation, as if—like Henry—she’d discovered the disease only well after it had ravaged her.

Far below, to their left, the Ohio started, the Allegheny and the Mon blending, the surface swirled like a stirred can of paint, lapping furrows covering the heavy undertow. She imagined following the water, driving all night through the little river towns with their brick taverns and row houses and rusting pickup trucks, the railroad tracing the oxbows and eddies downstream, pushing on for Cairo, St. Louis, New Orleans. She’d lived in Pittsburgh more than forty years; now, suddenly, there was nothing keeping her here.

“The new stadium’s almost done,” Arlene nodded at the far shore, and it was true, they were even working weekends, the scaffolds around the facade dotted with hard hats, an orange crane draped with a huge Steelers banner.

“They’re playing someone today,” Emily said. “It’s barely August.”


“Oh great, we’re headed straight into enemy territory.”

“Maybe I’ll finally buy that T-shirt,” Arlene said.

It was an old joke. The Bills trained at Fredonia, so the grocery stores were filled with Bills merchandise, the seasonal aisle a party of hats and glasses and beer cozies, lamps and license plates and chip-n-dip trays. Fans showed up in Winnebagos painted the team colors, and some of their neighbors at Chautauqua flew blue-and-red flags.

Strange how things changed. When she was a teenager growing up in Kersey, in the wooded hills of central Pennsylvania, her friends all saw Buffalo and Pittsburgh as their deliverance, the only way out of their small town. Of the two, Pittsburgh was the more glamorous, a notion that now struck her as sad in its innocence. She’d been such a hick; Henry never tired of reminding her. The two cities had seemed magical back then, home to radio stations she struggled to bring in on her father’s console. Both were famous for hard work. Now they seemed like relics, lost and emptied, the heavy industry fled or extinct. She and Henry had honeymooned, like everyone else, at Niagara Falls. They’d had their picture taken in slickers on the Maid of the Mist. She remembered kissing him, how the water ran down their faces like a shower.

She hadn’t been to Buffalo in years, would probably never go again.

“Were there any bills in Buffalo?” Emily asked.

“Were there any pirates in Pittsburgh?”

“Besides Andy Carnegie and Mr. Frick.”

“How’s Rufus doing?”

“He’s fine,” Emily said, before turning to check. Rufus lay with his head resting on his crossed paws, looking up at her guiltily. At each corner his rubbery lips held a gluey drop of slobber. “He’s a good boy.”

“Rufus the Doofus.” It was the children’s nickname, but coming from Arlene it didn’t sound loving.

“Be nice.”

“I am being. As long as he’s on the towel.”

“He is.”

Arlene lighted up a Lucky, and Emily flicked down her window. The air rushed in with the sound of a blowtorch. It did nothing to clear the smoke, if anything pushed more in her direction.

“Shoot,” Arlene said, and smacked the wheel.


“I forgot to bring film. I wanted to take pictures of the house.”

For old times’ sake, Emily thought. “You can get some there.”

“I know, but . . . I bought some special. I know right where it is, it’s sitting on the kitchen table.”

“You can borrow some from me, I’ve got extra.”

Emily hadn’t thought of taking pictures of the cottage, just of Kenneth and Margaret and the children. When Mrs. Klinginsmith, the realtor, had asked for a recent photo, Emily couldn’t find one. Mrs. Klinginsmith said it was okay, she’d take one, and produced on the spot a digital camera from her massive bag. Emily and Henry had taken hundreds of shots of the house, but always in the background. They had hours of videos—Sam and Ella playing croquet, Sarah and Justin shooing a younger Rufus away from the doomed geraniums.

She’d watched some this winter, trying to catch a glimpse of Henry, but he was behind the camera, at best a shadow on the screenporch, tipped back in his chair. The only good one she found was of him playing wiffle ball with Sam and Ella. Kenneth must have taken it from behind home plate, because there was Lisa on first and Henry wearing his Pirates cap sideways, pitching behind his back and through his legs, doing a goofy windmilling windup only to deliver a soft lob that Ella smacked past him. And then the scene changed to Ella’s seventh birthday, and Emily could tell Henry was shooting because Lisa was bringing in the lit cake and Emily herself was standing beside Sam’s chair, singing, her hair a mess from swimming, and she stopped the tape and rewound it.

“Here comes the old radio ball,” Henry joked. “You can hear it but you can’t see it.”

She’d only watched the scene a few times, the last standing right by the set as if she could get closer to him that way.

They’d relied on the video when the grandchildren were little, made an event of sitting around the Zenith watching themselves, but since last fall she couldn’t remember using it once. For Christmas she was at Kenneth and Lisa’s, Easter at Margaret’s (Jeff had showed up perfunctorily for the egg hunt but had other dinner plans). Today, like then, it had never crossed her mind to bring the camera, and now she was sorry.

She looked out at the grassy embankment rising beside the highway, pink with mountain laurel despite the drought, a rock wash laid neatly down one manicured flank. The trees were bright, the darkness beneath absolute. She wondered how far back they ran, and what lived in them, but without any real interest, just something to look at, to stop her from chewing on things she could do nothing about.

It wasn’t just riding in the car that sent her off like this. Watching TV or reading, she found her mind wrapping itself around the irreducible new facts of her life, like Rufus winding his chain around the sycamore out back. Like him, she only managed to tear off more bark, leave even more raw scars. To soothe them, she remembered, and the remembering became a full world, a dream she could walk through. It felt real, and then it went away and she was left with the kitchen, the garbage can nearly full, the fly that wandered the downstairs, knocking into screens, making her chase it with a magazine.

Arlene had gotten them behind a silver tank truck. A stream of cars passed them on the left while Arlene darted her head at her mirrors and over her shoulder. A space opened in the chain. At the last second Arlene said, “I can’t make it,” and backed off. She waited until everyone had overtaken them, then signaled primly and swung around the truck, their reflection dimpling as they passed. A green sign on the side said corrosive. Another diamond beside it showed a test tube dripping liquid on a disembodied hand spiced with cartoon shock marks.


“What’s lovely?” Arlene asked, concentrating on her lane.

Emily explained.

“What do you think it is?”

“Some sort of industrial acid, I imagine.”

It was an answer Henry would have given, noncommittal but promising. Emily had no idea what might be in the truck and didn’t care. Some chemical. The driver would deliver it to some factory, and they would make something people would buy and put in their homes and use until whatever it was broke or was relegated to the attic or a tag sale, then eventually thrown away, left to rust in some dump or to rot under tons of garbage at a landfill while more trucks rolled past day and night.

A dead deer slid by on their right. It was a spotted fawn, its neck bent back unnaturally, black blood coating the nose, staining the pavement. Arlene obviously saw it but said nothing—to spare her feelings, Emily supposed.

She wanted to respond, to remind Arlene that she was a country girl from a family of dedicated hunters, intimate with back roads littered spring and fall with fat, soggy possums and capsized raccoons. And really, she’d gotten used to death. There were as many dead things as living in the world. More. Everywhere you looked there was a cemetery, a dried leaf, a husk of a fly. And yet the world rolled on, green and busy as ever.

The thing that secretly moved her to tears now was not death but parting. Watching TV, she would be reduced to sniffling and wiping her eyes by soldiers waving from trains, mothers putting children onto school buses, confetti snowing over the decks of cruise ships. It didn’t have to be some sweeping movie she was caught up in. A long-distance commercial could do it. And the quality didn’t matter—it could be the most obvious, manipulative, sepia-toned slow motion, it still hit her like a brick. It was funny, because in real life she had no trouble saying good-bye, simply did it and walked away (a trait she credited to her mother’s stringent Lutheranism). She and Henry had had a year to tell each other good-bye, and she thought she was happy with the job they’d done. There was nothing lingering, nothing left to say between them. Then why did these clich’d scenes tear at her?

“I brought paper plates,” Arlene said.

“So did I. How about napkins?”

They would need to stop at the Golden Dawn after they got there.

“We should make a list,” Emily said, and dug in her purse. “Paper towels, film . . . what else?”

Pie from a roadside stand. Blackberry was in season for another week. They could wait till tomorrow for corn, and get two of those rotisserie chickens from the Lighthouse. Did they have to call and reserve those? Probably, on the weekend. Peaches. Tomatoes. They would have to make a separate trip to the cheese place and pick up a block of the extra-sharp cheddar the children liked.

Miles in the car, the air-conditioning growing too cold. Forest, crows, police. She had made this drive so many times, yet parts of it still surprised her. She’d forgotten the barn they pointed out to the children when they were little, the faded advertisement dull but legible: chew mail pouch treat yourself to the best. A rest area was barricaded, a customized van with back windows faceted like diamonds inexplicably sitting in the middle of the empty lot. Clouds repeated in the sky to the horizon, a fleet steaming out of harbor. The woods gave way to dairy land, slouching red barns and fields overgrown with burdock and Queen Anne’s lace. Outside Mercer they ran into a thundershower, the rain so heavy that Arlene braked and Emily braced for a collision. A mile later it was sunny, a rainbow rising from the hills.

“Make a wish,” Emily said, then cleared a space in her mind and thought, slowly, as if speaking to God, I wish: that they will all ­understand.

They left 79 and headed east along Lake Erie, Arlene tentatively joining the four lanes of I-90. In back, Rufus gulped for air, huffed and swallowed hard, and to placate Arlene, Emily twisted in her seat and sweet-talked him.

“You’re all right,” she said, but Rufus didn’t look convinced. He lifted his head, woozy and confused.

“No!” Emily said. “Down!”

He did, his muzzle jumping with a hiccup.

“Should I pull over?” Arlene asked.

“He’s fine. It’s not far.”

“It’s another hour.”

“Forty minutes,” Emily said. “Just drive. He’s not going to throw up on your precious seats, and if he does I’ll clean it up.”

“I was just trying to help,” Arlene said.

“I’m sorry. I know you don’t like him.”

“I like him, I just don’t want him throwing up in my car.”

“Well, that’s just what dogs do, I can’t do anything about that.” Emily sighed at the pettiness of the argument and the needling fact that she was in the wrong. “Listen, I appreciate you driving, and I’m sorry he’s not the best passenger. I don’t mean to be rude, I just want us to get there.”

“I don’t mind him, really,” Arlene said, as if she’d already accepted her apology.

The sign welcoming them to New York was pocked with yellow paintball splotches, the one panel with the new governor’s name a darker green. Crossing the border, Kenneth and Margaret used to lift their feet off the floor and hold their hands in the air, something they’d learned on the bus to church camp. She thought of doing it now but knew Arlene would be baffled.

She could almost hear Henry tell her to simmer down, could almost see the sideways look he’d give her that meant please take it easy on Arlene—or, more often, on Margaret, whose whole personality seemed designed to drive Emily to violence. She still could not get over the way Margaret had treated Jeff. Neither could Jeff, apparently, because he’d left her. That it had likely been the one trait they shared that finally drove him away seemed fitting to Emily. For Margaret, it was all the proof she needed that once again her mother had ruined her life. They’d been officially separated less than a year, but from Margaret’s scattered calls and what Kenneth let slip, divorce seemed more probable than reconciliation.

Wouldn’t her own mother feel justified now, always telling her to calm down and hold her tongue? “Why can’t you be nice?” her mother once said, gripping her forearm hard, and what answer could Emily give her? She saw the same helpless anger in her daughter and was just as powerless to save her. And who would save Emily when everything piled up?

Henry had, his placid heart the perfect balm for hers. Now that he was gone, she feared she would turn sour, take it out on those around her. Sometimes it seemed that was exactly what was happening. It was hard to tell. It was like menopause all over again, the crazy swings—or like being pregnant. Half the time she had no idea why she felt the way she did, except the overall excuse that Henry was dead.

“Here,” Arlene said of a sign coming up. “Nineteen miles.”

Route 17 was so new through here the bridges were still under construction. Orange-and-white-striped pylons funneled the two lanes into a chute between concrete barriers. Arlene brought her face closer over the wheel, and Emily sat up straight, as if lending her attention. No one was working, but a state trooper had tucked his cruiser in behind a dusty water truck.

Arlene was going slow enough that it didn’t matter, but from reflex Emily stiffened as if caught, a jagged spasm shooting through her. Henry had been a fast driver, a great believer in the Olds V-8.

“Tricky tricky,” Emily said.

“And it’s a work zone, so the fines are doubled.”

“Even if no one’s working. What a racket.”

A sign for Panama came, and then, off in a disused field, a billboard for Panama Rocks, where they’d taken Kenneth and Margaret as children. Margaret had been pudgy then, and refused to even try Fat Man’s Misery, standing outside while the rest of them squeezed through, the lichened walls cold against their bellies. She’d always stood apart from them somehow, and Emily had failed to bring her in.

Rufus had settled back into his tuck, a thread of slobber dried over his nose. “We’re almost there,” Emily promised.

They got off at the exit for the Institute, tracking a balding blacktop past lopsided Greek Revivals with washing machines on the porches and horses grazing in with cows. The road dissolved in spots, cinders clinking beneath them, wildflowers in the ditches. It reminded her of Kersey, the roller-coaster shortcuts through the state forest full of dips and switchbacks. The old homesteads were the same, the gingerbread Gothics on hilltops safe inside windbreaks of oaks and willows, mailboxes jutting from whitewashed milk cans, ponds with stubby docks for the kids to swim off, ducks sunning on an overturned rowboat. She could live here, give up the house in the city and watch the mist settle in the trees at dusk, the cows come lowing home.

Another billboard loomed over a slight rise: running on empty? fill up with jesus.

Well, that would be nice, she thought.

“Corn’s high,” Arlene noted.

“They’re north enough to get the lake effect.”

“I hope it doesn’t rain like last year.”

Emily had not been up last summer because of Henry, but she’d heard the horror stories—the children playing video games all day and fighting. She could see Arlene abandoning the house, throwing on a poncho and going for her walk by the fishery, cupping her Luckies against the drops.

“It won’t,” Emily said. “And if it does, we’ll find something to do. There’s always cards.”

“Justin was big into chess, I remember.”

“And Ella’s pretty good about the TV. It’s Sam who gets weird.”

“Maybe if we set a time limit. Who’s going to get there first?”


“Maybe if you talk with Lisa.”

“I can try,” Emily said.

“The two of you make up yet?”

“We’re civil. Let me put it that way.”

“Oh my,” Arlene said, slowing to take in a massive Victorian painted garish shades of mustard and raspberry. plumbush bed and breakfast, proclaimed a fussy placard hung pub-style out front. The wraparound porch commanded a view of a makeshift hay wagon across the road, and farther down the sloping field, the browned shell of a pickup.

“Plum bushed,” Arlene said. “I get it.”

“I’m sure the neighbors are amused,” Emily said.

Closer to the lake, they saw more new houses, all modular, trailered in from the same factory. One had a satellite dish beside it the size of a small plane, another a Bills flag in its bay window.

“You wonder if they keep that up all year,” Arlene said.

Finally they came to the intersection of 394, just above the Institute. Andriaccio’s was still there, its parking lot jammed with the lunchtime rush. The sudden crush of activity—a boy with a pair of canes wobbling across the lot, a tall man in shorts holding the door for an older couple leaving—seemed to invite them to join in. Or was it the Institute itself, that idea of a relaxing, high-minded summer, that appealed to her? Waiting for a break in traffic, Emily peered down the hill and over the spiked iron fence at the tiny practice cabins, plain as outhouses and spaced neatly as graves, imagining some bright teenager’s days, the chaste dedication to her instrument and the great dead. As they passed, she thumbed down her window, hoping to catch a lithe phrase of oboe or a cello’s deep sigh. There was nothing.

“Emily, look,” Arlene said, incredulous. “The Putt-Putt.”

Its orange-and-white fence was still there, but everything back to the concrete-block restrooms was leveled, a for lease sign out front.

“Kenneth will be so disappointed.”

“You’d think they could make money with the Institute right here.”

“Obviously not,” Emily said.

She knew everything here: the Christmas shop; the hot laundromat where they still did their sheets and towels; the grade school now used for storage. They slowed for the walkway by the brick entrance of the Institute, an empty police car left by the maintenance hut as a decoy, then cruised alongside the lush fairways of the club (apparently they were having no trouble getting water). Henry had enjoyed the course. On six there was a pond, and he would always leave his tee shot right, mucking through the reeds beside the cart path. Once he’d discovered a snake and come running out with his nine-iron. She hadn’t swung a club all last year. She and Kenneth would have to get out for their traditional round. It would be the only time they’d have alone.

And there was the Wagon Wheel, with its rusted ladder of signs:


And the We Wan Chu cottages and campground, now with its own website.

“Now I’ve seen everything,” Emily said.

“That was up last year.”

Arlene slowed for Manor Drive, and Rufus stood, smearing his nose against the window. The turn convinced him to fold himself down again. He was well off the towel now but Emily let it go.

The drive was entirely in shadow, barely a car wide. The association had put up a 15 mph sign. The policeman with the trampoline and the Irish setter was home, but not the people with the ugly aboveground pool. The Nevilles were here in force, their driveway lined with minivans and SUVs, the garage open to show their old Volkswagen convertible. Two little girls she didn’t know rode their bicycles across the yard in their bathing suits and tennis shoes.

Between the houses Emily could see the lake, a Laser heeling near shore.

“Looks breezy out there,” she said, but Arlene had slowed for some older children on bikes—Craigs, they looked like, gripping tennis rackets. A blonde girl waved to them, and automatically they waved back, neighbors.

Farther on, a red Cadillac with Florida plates sat in a shaded drive. “The Wisemans are here,” Emily said, happy, because last year Herb Wiseman had had a heart attack and they hadn’t come up.

“Both of them or just Marjorie?”

“I can’t imagine her driving that car, can you?”

“We’ll have to go over,” Arlene said.

The Lerners’ place was for sale, also listed with Mrs. Klinginsmith, and seeing the sign disappointed Emily. She wondered what they were asking.

Rufus was up again, turning around to look at everything.

“He knows,” Arlene said.

Emily could see part of the cottage, obscured by the big chestnut next to the garage. “Well,” she said, “it hasn’t burned down.”

Closer, she could see the orange daylilies nestled around the mailbox. Something hung from it—a flyer in a plastic wrapper—and she thought there ought to be a law against delivering them when people weren’t home. It was an open invitation.

They turned onto the grass, running over fallen branches. The cottage was fine, even bright. She hadn’t seen the new paint job, gray with red shutters and white trim. No wonder the buyers paid their price. A pair of new steel bands held the chimney together, and the old TV antenna was gone. They’d even painted the garage, scraped the moss off the shingles. It looked better than it ever had, almost false. She wondered what Henry would have said.

Rufus scratched at the window.

“Down,” Emily said, but he was too excited.

Arlene stopped the car and Emily let him out. He shot around the side of the cottage and squatted, looking back over his shoulder. Another thing to clean up. The towel was covered with hair, one tuft caught in a blotch of drool; the seat was fine, though Arlene went through a pantomime of wiping it with a hand.

I will wash the towel,” Emily said, and balled it up.

When Rufus was done, he came back, looped around the two as if calling them to follow, then raced straight for the dock. Arlene ignored him and laid down the tailgate.

“Let’s just get the food in for now,” Emily said. She found the keys and crunched the brightest one in the kitchen door, propped the greased arm of the screen so it would stay open. The place smelled musty as a well house. Emily leafed among the keys (each taped and labeled in Henry’s neat hand) and went out back to turn the water on.

The spiders had been busy, fat as puffballs, their webs festooned with gnats, dotted with cottony eggs. Above the controls, tacked to the wall and bleeding with humidity, was a set of directions Henry had written out for Kenneth. She flipped the switch and the pump complained. The water here was soft and stunk of sulphur. It made her remember swimming in the lake and hanging their suits on the back line, thirty, almost forty years ago, when the children were little. All those summers were gone, but how sharply—just now—she could recall them. She wanted to inhabit them again, those long August days, the croquet and wiffle-ball games and campfires, skiing behind the boat. It was why they came here every year, she supposed, this feeling of eternity and shelter.

She locked the pump house behind her. On her way to the garage, she slipped on a mossy flagstone and barely kept her feet. “Stupid,” she said. Every year she forgot how treacherous they were. Think just once she’d remember.

No one had bothered to clean the garage. Henry’s junk was everywhere: beer cartons and bushel baskets, coolers and buckets, fishing gear, gas cans for the boat, cases piled with dusty Iron City and Genesee bottles, a steel trash can spiky with kindling. Suspended from the back wall were a saggy life raft and a trio of bare-breasted-mermaid boat bumpers that had embarrassed Kenneth as a teenager. Through the dulled rear window she could see Rufus out at the end of the dock. She wanted to go and sit with him, but Henry’s workbench drew her to it.

His tool apron lay at one end as if waiting for him. The rest was a clutter of gnarled work gloves and plastic cups full of screws, coils of yellow nylon rope, a handheld sander, aerosol cans of spray paint and WD-40, nails in wrinkly paper bags, wood putty, a crusted caulking gun, a wasp bomb, old screw-in fuses, ripped sandpaper disks, paint stirrers from the True Value in Mayville, a bent cleat, a can of 3 in 1 oil, a scarred Maxfli, a dark lightbulb. She resisted the urge to touch any of it, stood there breathing in the smell, enjoying the mess. She’d ask Kenneth if he wanted the tools. He’d probably take them all just so none of them got thrown away. He really was her son.

Inside, Arlene was going through the cupboards. “Where’s that bowl we always put the fruit in?”

“The green one.”

“Is that the one?”

Emily checked above the dishwasher and to the left of the stove, then the lazy Susan under the counter. “This one.”

“I don’t remember it being this one. I thought it was orange for some reason.”

“Is there much more?” Emily asked.

“No, that’s it.”

“Do you mind if I go down to the dock for a second before we eat?”

“Go ahead. There’s not room in here for both of us anyway.”

The wind was blowing in, raising cat’s-paws on the water. Under the chestnut it was cool, but once she stepped onto the dock her face warmed. The lake was down several feet, and weedy. Pearly clam shells winked up at her from the bottom. Rufus was lying down and raised his head to see who was coming. In its slip the Starcraft sloshed and knocked, its lines creaking. The handsome salmon cover Henry had bought was streaked with gull droppings. The buyers had their own boat, so Mrs. Klinginsmith had arranged for Smith Boys down in Ashville to buy it as salvage. At that point Emily didn’t argue. It was nearly thirty years old, and the Evinrude regularly stranded them. Funny how much she could part with now—how little, really.

She reached the broad ell of the dock and stepped around Rufus to sit on the bench. He got up and flopped down at her feet. She bent and petted him, absently scratched behind his ears.

“You’re glad to be out of the car, I bet. Yes.”

He looked up at her as if she’d said something vitally important. His eyes were misted with cataracts; lately he’d been bumping into doorways. She didn’t know what she would do if he became incontinent.

“You’re fine,” she said. “You’re all right.”

On the next dock a wooden duck caught the wind, its wings slowly spinning in opposite directions like a deranged clock. She leaned back and looked off to the far shore. It had been so dry that some of the trees had already started to turn, not a brilliant red but a muted, diseased shade. She wondered if they would die or come back next year, then realized she would never know. She remembered a toppled redwood they’d seen out in California, ages ago, on some more ambitious trip when the children were little. The rings were different sizes; the thinnest indicated drought years. Maybe this year would be like that, next year a better one.

She looked out at the waves as if they might provide an answer. Rufus sat up and pushed his wet muzzle under her hand. He’d missed his breakfast, and now that he was out of the car, he was hungry.

“I know,” she said, “you’ve been very patient.”

Next year had to be better. Practically.

In all her concentration she had stopped petting Rufus. He’d turned away from her to face the lake, so when he tipped his head up to question her, he looked cross-eyed. His tongue flopped out to one side, and she wondered how it was possible to be that open to the world, that willing, still.

“You are a doofus,” she said.

She felt his ridged skull under her nails, the grain of his hair. The sun was out but the wind was up, making the duck’s wings pinwheel and slice like propellers. Her own hair stabbed at her cheeks.

“Come on,” she said, and got up, and together they walked back toward the cottage. Arlene would need help with lunch.

Reading Group Guide

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Stewart O’Nan’s Wish You Were Here.

This incredible novel is about the Maxwell family as they try to cope with the loss of their father and the selling of the family-owned summer cabin.

O’Nan brilliantly portrays a family divided from within, as over the course of seven days each person wrestles with their own internal conflicts, as well as various differences with the rest of the family.

Allegiances are quickly assembled, only to be destroyed hours later, anger swells and subsides like the incoming tides, as each character in the novel ponders the concepts of love, loss, and memory.

O’Nan has produced a novel of remarkable caliber that, unlike other current works of fiction, is character driven instead of plot driven. The reader is given full access to each person’s emotional balance as O’Nan puts us into the head of each person involved, whether it be mother, father, son, daughter, sister-in-law, or grandchild O’Nan investigates the fragility of the human heart and deconstructs the concept of the modern family, exposing both its strengths and its weaknesses.

Questions for Discussion:

1. The title of the novel is Wish You Were Here. Discuss the deeper meaning of this title. Is it meant to be interpreted as a humorous comment on the book’s situation or is there more to it than that? How does the title apply to each of the members of the Maxwell family?

2. Henry Maxwell, the father/husband, is the focal point of the novel. Both his absence and his memory are constantly remarked upon. The cabin seems to be a personal embodiment of Henry Maxwell. By placing the family in such close quarters they are constantly reminded of the role that Henry played in each of their lives. Some of these memories are both positive and negative. Discuss how each family member reflects upon Henry and the impact that he had on their lives. What is O’Nan saying about us as a society when it comes to how we remember loved ones that have passed on?

3. Emily Maxwell is obviously a strong but flawed character. Throughout the novel Emily’s feelings about the cabin fluctuate repeatedly. Discuss why she has decided to sell the cabin, even though it is obviously an important place within the family’s collective history. Do you think she made the right decision? Do you believe her motives were in part totally selfish, or were they altruistic? How does the rest of the family react to Emily’s decision? Why doesn’t any of the family confront her about her decision to sell?

4. Arlene, Emily’s sister-in-law, is an interesting person. She carries within her the wounds from a failed love affair that still seems to affect her in her latter years. Her life seems to be empty and sad but she is resolved to carry on. The loss of both Henry and the family cabin cuts Arlene deeply, but why does she remain passive? Describe her relationship with Emily? The luncheon at the Lenhart is a telling moment about the relationship between the two women. What does it say about their personalities and how each feels about Henry?

5. O’Nan has provided us with a complex novel that works on many levels. The story is populated with various characters, each with their own complex personalities. Each character interacts with the others throughout the novel. Ask yourself which relationship is the most stable and provides the most comfort. Which relationship causes the most tension? Consider the Maxwell family as a whole. Does it reflect today’s fractured nuclear family? How do you rate Henry and Emily as parents? How much does this say about Ken and Margaret and their current situations?

6. There are four children in the novel: Meg’s children, Sarah and Justin; and Ken and Lise’s children, Ella and Sam. All four tell their own history as they observe and feel what is occurring during the course of the novel. What do the children’s thoughts reveal about their upbringing and interaction with their parents? Which parents are more akin to Henry and Emily? Is this a positive thing? In your opinion, who are the better parents?

7. Memory plays an important part in the novel. Each character has his/her own memories about the past, about the cabin and Henry. However it’s the items in the cabin itself that seem to trigger many of these recollections. A good example of this is Ken’s trip to his father’s workshop. Can you name other such incidents where the floodgates of memory are opened due to a physical item or place? Are these characters trying to replace the past or are they simply trying to make peace with it?

8. Meg is a person with many issues: anger, addiction, confusion, and helplessness. What are the causes of some of these issues? Was Meg simply a victim of circumstance or was she responsible for some of the events that have taken their toll on her life? Even though she has quit drinking, Meg is still troubled by other issues. Do you think that Meg has the same type of resilience that Emily does? And what about her relationship with Henry? What effect did these two have as parents on raising Meg?

9. The family dog, Rufus, is more than a family pet. In fact, O’Nan even gives the dog a voice in one scene in the novel. What does Rufus symbolize and how is his presence used in the novel? See pp. 1-18, 92-95, and 327-328 for examples.

10. The convenience store robbery/kidnapping is never resolved but nevertheless has a huge impact upon Ken (pp. 70-73, 119, 234-237). He constantly returns to it in his thoughts and imagines various photo projects that he can construct, but inevitably he doesn’t act upon any of them. What does this lack of follow-through say about Ken as a husband, as a father, and as a son? Does he consider himself a success at these endeavors?

11. Jealousy is an emotion that rises up several times throughout the novel. Examine the following examples and discuss how this emotion affects the characters involved: Meg’s jealousy of Jeff’s new girlfriend (pp. 65-66); Meg jealousy of Lisa (p. 133); Lisa’s jealousy of Meg and Ken’s closeness (p. 191). There are other incidents of this type. Name several others.

12. The concept of the perfect family vacation is a modern-day myth. Stories like Wish You Were Here, and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, explore the complex nature of individuality and how we relate to the people we love, even if we don’t like or understand them. Discuss the nature of family gatherings and why they often end up in failure. Is it because our expectations are too high or do we simply forget the flaws of others?

13. Ella’s romantic feelings for her cousin Sarah provide an interesting dynamic between the two girls. At times these feelings are almost unbearable for Ella (See pp. 390-393). Much of the novel deals with longing and here is a prime example of that yearning. Many of the other characters experience this feeling as well: longing for the past, for someone who is not there, for a moment that will make them whole again. Discuss what this means to the overall plot of the novel, and how it colors the mood of the characters and their situation.

14. All of us have experienced the complicated feelings from the loss of a loved one, and the process of sorting possessions is a complicated and charged event. In the Maxwell family Emily attempts to make the process a simple listing of goods. Why does she do this? Is the fact of the matter that she finds the situation unbearable, or is it simply her nature to attend to the business at hand and be done with it? Each of the family members reacts differently to Emily’s request but yet none of them confront her directly. Why is this? Name some of the items that each person wants and what they mean to them.

15. When the Maxwells return to the cabin they realize that many of the memorable sites have changed. Familiar landscapes have been abandoned, left to decay. The trip to Panama Rocks, once a fun-filled memory, reveals a run-down Nature Park. The Putt-Putt has been closed and will soon be torn down. The trip to the Lenhart only results in disappointments and sadness. Much of the family has a difficult time adapting to change and yet they are constantly challenged by it. How do the Maxwells handle the less-than-nostalgic change in the landscape of the past? What is O’Nan saying about our culture and its ever-changing façade?

16. Throughout the novel many of the characters seem to be trying to hide or escape their present situation. Lisa hides in the Harry Potter novel, Meg is constantly getting high, the boys are fixated on their Game Boys, and Ken is often lost in his own thoughts. Does this preoccupation with distraction seem to run in the family or is it that everyone is totally uncomfortable with being gathered at the cabin? Are the characters comfortable in their own skin or do they yearn to be someone else, in a different place, in a separate life?

17. Honesty can be a dangerous trait. Many of the family members hide behind the facade of politeness and empty conversations, but occasionally we get glimpses of the truth. Ken’s inner world is especially revealing. Often he views himself as a failure, a disappointment to his father, a dream chaser. Do you think that he is a failure? On p. 21, O’Nan writes: “Would he be like his father, quietly dedicated to getting along, so steady and stoic that he seemed inscrutable, disconnected from everything except what was in his head and the newest project on his workbench?” Discuss how both Henry and Emily have had a huge influence on Ken’s personality and way of thinking (examples: pp. 18-32, 215-219). What about the influence of his sister, Meg?” Does Ken regret who he is in the world?

18. At the end of the novel the family is forced to say good-bye to the cabin for the last time, people are leaving with whatever meager scraps of memory they have managed to escape with, and life will go back to normal. Have the Maxwells undergone a severe dramatic shock to the system, or will they continue on, unchanged, returning to the same patterns of behavior?

19. What is O’Nan saying about the American family with this novel? Are the Maxwells the standard, the typical American family, or are they different? If so, how? Where do you think the Maxwells will be ten years from now? Speculate on what character will have undergone the most change. What character will remain the most steadfast? Do you think that any of the characters are happy? If not, do you think that any of them have a chance at obtaining happiness, or at least some type of peace of mind?

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom; Collected Stories of John Cheever; The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy; With Your Crooked Heart by Helen Dunmore; Peace Like a River by Leif Enger; The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen; They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell; We Were the Mulvaney’s by Joyce Carol Oates; A World Away by Stewart O’Nan; Pure by Rebbecca Ray; A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley; The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington; Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler; To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf; This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff