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New Yorker book critic’s nearly flawless 2nd novel

June 4, 2018 GMT

“Upstate” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by James Wood:

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, over the course of the novel, 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 at Skidmore College, has slid into a severe depression, and Alan and his younger daughter, Helen, travel upstate from New York City to Saratoga Springs to assess the situation, a journey and destination that lend the book its title.

Alan still can’t get over something Van’s newish boyfriend, Josh, has confided to Helen: that Van may have tried to harm herself. “She couldn’t just toss her life aside, like an unfinished crossword puzzle,” 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 at a record company.

She wants to strike out on her own, into the then brand-new world of streaming music — the novel is set in winter 2007, right after a little-known Illinois senator declares he’s running for president — 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. Everything on the page is seeable and believable, often enlivened by his dry English wit. 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 when they were 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.”