James Wood – Upstate

James Wood – Upstate

Alan Querry lives a modest life in Northumberland, he is moderately successful as a developer and after the hard time of the divorce and death of his first wife, he found a new love. When his daughter Helen informs him that her sister Vanessa obviously has another depressive episode, Alan makes his way from England to Saratoga Springs upstate New York where Vanessa lives with her boyfriend Josh and where she teaches philosophy. Alan has never visited her, too many things kept him from crossing the ocean.  Helen joins him and thus, the family is united in a wintry small town and faced with the uncomfortable truths they have avoided for years.

James Wood is best known for being a literary critic for The Guardian and The New Yorker Magazine and teaching literature at Harvard. “Upstate” is his latest novel which focusses on philosophical dilemmas and the bonds of a family.

Clearly, the incident that triggers the family reunion was Vanessa’s accident during which she broke her arm. Yet, this was only the sad climax of a depressive period – something she has known all her life. How come that her younger sister Helen, who had to go through the same hardships as a child and is also struggling with her career, does not know these moody periods and can embrace happiness much easier? Why are some people just stronger, more resilient than others?

It has never been easy for the family members to openly talk about their feelings. Thus, they need to find other topics to layer what they want to say and to make it expressible. For Helen it is music, for Vanessa it has always been philosophy and for Alan, nature seems to be the clue.  At the end, the wintry ice is melting, after it was a cause for a minor road accident of Alan, that also the ice between father and daughter finally melts and gives way for a new spring, a new beginning.

What I enjoyed about the novel is the gentle pace at which it moves and the tenderness with which Wood talks about his characters. The impressive American landscape contrasts with the critical look at the people and especially American politics – we are around 2007 immediately before Obama announced his candidacy. Where nature is a lot more extreme, everything created by man is poorer there than the European counterpart, which more conservative but also more reliable. Such as the people – in the end, the family bonds are stronger and more dependable than the love bonds.