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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, June 13, 2018 1:00 am

Family bonds deepen during trip 'Upstate'

Reviewed By ANN LEVIN | Associated Press

As a Harvard professor and New Yorker book critic, James Wood writes about what makes good literature. In “Upstate,” his nearly flawless second novel, he demonstrates how it's done.

The story centers on 68-year-old Alan Querry, a real estate developer in northern England who must come to grips with the problems and needs of his two adult daughters. Decades earlier, their mother walked out on him, leaving him to raise the girls alone.

Now the older one, Vanessa, a philosophy professor, has slid into severe depression, and Alan and his younger daughter, Helen, travel from New York City to Saratoga Springs to assess the situation.

Alan still can't get over something Van's newish boyfriend, Josh, has confided to Helen: that Van may have tried to harm herself. Alan thinks: “Why did Helen find happiness easy, when her sister found it hard?”

Over the few days they're together, he'll discover it's not quite that simple. While Helen is indeed as buoyant and resilient as Vanessa is melancholy and fragile, she has problems of her own. Her marriage may be on the rocks, and she's sick of her high-powered job.

She wants to strike out on her own, but to do that, she'll need financial support from dad, who, unbeknownst to her, is short on cash.

As a critic, Wood is a fan of experimental fiction. But his own style hews closely to the conventions of social realism. As the point of view shifts unobtrusively among Alan, Van and Helen, we come to understand all the ways they're different and alike, and how, for each of them, their family is very nearly everything.

“Every time he saw his daughters, he experienced such hunger for them ... he was freshly amazed that he didn't see them more,” Alan thinks after meeting Helen in New York. That makes him wonder why he didn't spend more time with them growing up. “That extraordinary power family had, to blot out all other considerations ... perhaps he'd feared that, recognized its engrossing fanaticism. If you surrendered to that, you would do nothing else in life.”