Wish You Were Here, by Stewart O’Nan

This novel is set in Chautauqua, where a family prepares to sell their long-time summer home. I enjoyed it a great deal—in fact, I picked it up off a table when I was at camp (yes, adults too sometimes go to summer camp) and became so engrossed that I inadvertently walked off with it, much to the dismay of the book's owner who ended up searching all over camp for it. Needless to say, I was terribly embarrassed about having stolen his book but that didn’t stop me reading it straight through once he was done with it.

Part of what fascinated me was that O’Nan’s description of the summer home took me back to the place on the Chesapeake Bay where we sometimes summered when I was a child. The musty smell, the cardboard walls, the odd-tasting water, the cluttered garage . . . all resonated with my own half-buried memories. But it was really when the adult “children” went upstairs to unpack that a shiver of recognition tore through me. The upstairs area, where they had slept when young, was one large room with beds at either end, just as ours was.

Rounding out the physical description of the home were the shifting relationships between the family members: alliances and competitions, informed by memories of past betrayals and allegiances. These, too, made me think of my adult siblings and the way our carefully distant relationships have been altered by the events of the past year as our remaining parent slipped away.

I thought O’Nan’s book absorbing and thought-provoking, but in coming to that judgment, how much of a factor were my memories? So often my response to art—whether a book or music or visual art—depends largely on what I bring to it. There have been many popular and award-winning books that I came to with high expectations only to be disappointed, as I was with The Dante Club a few weeks ago. Would I have liked them better if I had stumbled across them with no introduction, such as happened with Behind the Scenes at the Museum back in April? There have been paintings such as Charles Ritchie’s Study for “Pike” whose fascination for me might stem from the strong memories they evoke rather than from artistic merit (however defined).

In the translation class I’m taking, we discussed Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Task of the Translator” in which he says that “In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful. Not only is any reference to a certain public or its representatives misleading, but even the concept of an ‘ideal’ receiver is detrimental in the theoretical consideration of art, since all it posits is the existence and nature of man as such. Art, in the same way, posits man's physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response. No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.”

As a writer, I understand and agree with the idea that you cannot write for the reader, but out of yourself, the deepest, most authentic self you can summon. At the same time, I do care about the response of my readers. That is to say, I want them to respond. However, readers bring such a variety of experiences, prejudices, amities and antipathies to the table that there is no way to anticipate what their response will be and, judging from my book club’s discussions, their responses will vary considerably. I like Stephen King’s image of writing the first draft with his study door closed and the second draft with the door open.

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