New Yorker book critic and award-winning author James Wood delivers a novel of a family struggling to connect with one another and find meaning in their own lives.
In the years since his daughter Vanessa moved to America to become a professor of philosophy, Alan Querry has never been to visit. He has been too busy at home in northern England, holding together his business as a successful property developer. His younger daughter, Helen—a music executive in London—hasn’t gone, either, and the two sisters, close but competitive, have never quite recovered from their parents’ bitter divorce and the early death of their mother. But when Vanessa’s new boyfriend sends word that she has fallen into a severe depression and that he’s worried for her safety, Alan and Helen fly to New York and take the train to Saratoga Springs.
Over the course of six wintry days in upstate New York, the Querry family begins to struggle with the questions that animate this profound and searching novel: Why do some people find living so much harder than others? Is happiness a skill that might be learned or a cruel accident of birth? Is reflection conducive to happiness or an obstacle to it? If, as a favorite philosopher of Helen’s puts it, “the only serious enterprise is living,” how should we live? Rich in subtle human insight, full of poignant and often funny portraits, and vivid with a sense of place, James Wood’s Upstate is a powerful, intense, beautiful novel.
Critic Wood's second novel (after The Book Against God) is the intriguing, restrained story of Alan Querry, who, in the last days of the second Bush presidency, is summoned by his confrontational older daughter, Helen, from his comfortable home in Northumberland to Saratoga Springs, N.Y. His younger daughter, Vanessa, is a philosophy professor there. Vanessa's much-younger husband has begun to worry that Vanessa's depression has become unmanageable. Alan also meets up with Helen, a powerful Sony record executive. Helen and Vanessa have always been opposites, differently damaged by their parents' divorce. Now the family faces crisis as they debate questions of "spiritual sadness," ask whether happiness is as inevitable as unhappiness, and struggle to achieve an overdue d tente. Wood is at his best when he lets himself go, allowing Alan, whose daughters find him "kind, self-contained, a bit detached," to complain about modern technology or note the subtle differences between U.S. and U.K. life, or when the narrative allows for Wood to hold forth on popular music and European philosophy; the critical bursts are stronger than the story beats. Though the novel might be a little too careful, it remains a strong performance.