A few weeks ago I reviewed two books together, and liked how it worked. It felt kind of like being back in college and having fun trying to think of something really weird and yet interesting to say in essays about books like Clarissa (for which I wrote a feminist analysis about Clarissa’s noted absence of a physical body) or The Merchant of Venice (where I believe I compared Shylock to Malcolm X). Fun stuff. So I’m making the twofer a regular feature.
The ground rules for the twofer feature are that I don’t actually pick the books to go together. They’re just two books I happen to finish up around the same time and then try to cobble together a review which somehow makes them fit together. You can play along yourself at home. This week, the two books are Elizabeth Berg’s The Year of Pleasures and Stewart O’Nan’s Wish You Were Here.
An unexpected thing these two books have in common: widows. In The Year of Pleasures, Betta is in her fifties and fairly recently widowed. She picks up and leaves Boston and lands in a small town not far from Chicago. There she buys a house and reconnects with old friends from college and generally tries to move forward with her life.
Emily in Wish You Were Here lost her husband Henry about a year ago. The book takes place during the week in which Emily, her sister-in-law, two children and grandchildren all go up to the family cabin in Chautauqua, New York, for the last time as Emily has decided to sell the cabin.
Two rather random ways in which these books are different: First, The Year of Pleasures is really all about Betta. It’s first person narration that sticks with Betta throughout. Wish You Were Here roves into the minds of all the folks in the cabin, including at one point, Rufus the dog, which I kind of liked.
Second, in Wish You Were Here, nothing much really happens, and yet you still want to keep reading. It reminded me of A Suitable Boy in this way. The most startling thing the happens in Wish You Were Here–a boy gets hit in the face with a buckeye. And yet, dancing around the edges of the nothing happening is a great deal of suspense. There are things that you feel might happen, and then it’s okay even when they don’t, because in real life they often don’t happen, either.
O’Nan’s style in this book reminds me of Ian McEwan in the ways in which he skillfully dips into the heads of people and keeps it interesting, but unlike McEwan, he keeps it interesting even when nothing is really happening. That seems to take some talent. Especially when the nothing goes on for 517 pages.
Things happen to Betta in The Year of Pleasures, and they’re interesting enough. But is it strange to say that they’re not as interesting as the things that don’t happen in Wish You Were Here?
An interesting thing that emerges in comparing the two books: the use of time. The Year of Pleasures is meant to suggest a year in Betta’s life. That’s what the title tells us. I couldn’t tell in the book itself. Kind of like in The Soprano’s, time seemed to get fuzzy in the book at times (did you ever notice that you could never really tell how much time was passing within one episode of The Soprano’s or from one episode to the next?). By the end, had it really been a year? And hadn’t we skipped a lot in between? Sometimes relationships had changed in ways I wasn’t really aware of and conversations had happened off the page. When you put year in the title, I guess I expect the passage of time to be, I don’t know, a little bit more central.
In Wish You Were Here, the book is divided up into the actual days everyone is at the cabin. It starts on Saturday as everyone arrives and ends on Saturday when everyone leaves. But Wish You Were Here is much longer than The Year of Pleasures (517 pages to 206). Sometimes there’s less to say about a year than there is about a week. Each day in Wish You Were Here starts in the morning and ends at night, and I found that very satisfying.
Being fuzzy about time worked for The Soprano’s maybe because it seemed like almost everything worked in The Soprano’s. It seemed to give the show a kind of timelessness and universality, an abstract quality. In a highly personal story like The Year of Pleasures, the fuzziness of time doesn’t work the same way. In Wish You Were Here, marking off the day so exactly fits perfectly with the mundanity of what O’Nan seems to be trying to convey.
The best parts from the book I liked least: The first 3 pages or so of The Year of Pleasures are wonderful, with Betta describing the difference between taking the interstate and driving the backroads to get somewhere. The things you see and the life you experience. It’s beautiful and makes you want to get in your car and drive somewhere by the backroads right away.
The best part of this book is Betta’s idea for a shop for women, which would have all the things women want. Kind of dopey on one level, but with beautiful things she’s picked up all around, and a space for women just to get together and be. I love the descriptions of the shop and we used to have a place kind of like that in Madison, a shop called Whimsy, and it was just delightful.
The worst parts of the book I liked best: I was getting a little antsy to get the hell out of the cabin towards the end of O’Nan’s book, but I think that might actually work. Everyone in the book is also feeling that way to varying degrees, and what better way to convey what a family vacation can feel like sometimes. There’s a moment when we all want to get the hell away from each other.
Why I liked one book better than the other (you know, it’s not a competition, but…): Betta’s husband in The Year of Pleasures was too perfect to feel real. The family in Wish You Were Here were just very real, which also means, sometimes fairly crappy to each other and trapped in their inability sometimes to connect with each other. The Year of Pleasures was lovely, but sometimes a bit too light.
Something the books left me thinking about: This is specific to Wish You Were Here, but in the book, Emily (and her deceased husband, too) felt that their adult children had just never really grown up. I could really relate to this family in a lot of ways but thought, well, yes, but surely my parents don’t think that way about us? Right? Who knows? And then I thought, maybe all parents feel that their children never really grow up, or not in a way that’s satisfactory to them. What do you think? Do parents ever feel that their children have truly grown up?
That’s this week’s twofer. I feel like Berg’s book might have gotten short shrift by comparison, but both books were worth the read. Wish You Were Here just felt more satisfying in this particular moment.
Coming soon, hopefully some reviews related to gardening and farming…perhaps a review of some seed catalogues!