Upstate by James Wood

Do you ever start a book, notice something peculiar, and then can’t see anything but the repeated peculiartity? Such was the case with Upstate by James Wood (I’ll get to the peculiarity).

Alan Querry is a successful property developer from the north of England. He has two daughters: Vanessa, a philosopher who lives and teaches in upstate New York, and Helen, a record company executive based in London. The women are very different, “…Helen did things while Vanessa thought things”, but neither had ever quite recovered from their parents’ bitter divorce; the early death of their mother; and their disapproval of Candace, Alan’s second wife.

Alan’s worry about the future of his business is interrupted by Josh, Vanessa’s partner, who summons Alan and Helen to America to deal with Vanessa’s latest bout of depression. Over the course of six wintery days in upstate New York, the Querry family ponders the meaning of happiness and why some people find living so much harder than others.

He had known unhappiness, and some of it had been quite severe; but he didn’t think he’d ever really known despair. Despair was of the spirit, it was terminal.

It’s an inward looking novel and we spend much time in the minds of Alan, Vanessa and Helen. Unfortunately, they make little progress on the ‘big questions’ and pages of thoughtful reflection become rather pained and self-indulgent.

The navel-gazing is not the peculiarity. Instead, it’s Alan’s constant internal commentary on the appearance of his daughters. Here’s a sample –

He watched his two highly intelligent, grown-up daughters… Helen apparently more confident, acute, with her slightly sharp teeth, elegantly handsome, but also being disagreeable somehow, as if she were necessary medicine that Vanessa just had to take; Vanessa quieter, softer, with her long dark hair and slightly squinting eyes, but exact, precise in her every word and thought, and so, to him at least, quite as formidable as her more obviously intimidating sister.

Van looked radiant tonight, in a grey skirt and a sea-blue Indian top, inlaid with sequinny whatsits, and wearing a mother-of-pearl hairband (he had never before seen her wear a hairband). And her lovely eyes…

And as a father, he was put in the painful position of having to judge, from Josh’s possibly aroused perspective, the relative sexiness of his daughters: yes, from that point of view, Helen was the clear winner. She had a body and she knew what to do with it.

I did a straw-poll with friends and family, asking if they assessed the appearance of family members every time they saw them. No one did. At all. Why did it bother me? It seemed a little creepy. It didn’t seem authentic. I also wondered what narrative purpose it served (none, as far as I could tell).

The author, James Wood, is a highly regarded literary critic. Props to James for putting his own work out there for scrutiny. I enjoyed some of the sarcastic humour –

…he had to admit that America had never quite existed for him. He’d read somewhere that Americans used, per capita, three times as many sheets of toilet paper a day as the global average, which told him what he needed to know. It was an enormous, religious, largely reactionary place, with no real tradition of socialism, where the car parks were larger than many European villages.

But after a while, the slightly pompous and superior Alan started to grate, and I wondered, how much of Alan was James? All that ‘middle-aged white man writing about a middle-aged white man’ is bound to be tedious – nothing new to see here, folks!

2/5 Okay (just).

I received my copy of Upstate from the publisher, Random House UK, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

His smoked salmon was very good. They knew how to do things in London, even if they squirted the dill mustard onto the plate from a large plastic bottle.

8 responses

  1. As an older white guy, I find that I read very few books about older white guys. And I thought the monstrosity in the White House was the only man who looked at his daughters like that.

  2. Pingback: Bookish (and not so bookish) Thoughts | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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