James Wood

Barnes and Noble

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 struggles to connect with one another and find meaning in their own lives. Ron Charles of The Washington Post wrote about the book: “its affections are large, and its wisdom deep. . .To read Upstate is to realize just how much of each other we usually miss or ignore.”

The House of Querry certainly looked good—as if it were built on rock rather than sand. A curved gravel path (as he drove up it now, his car tires ground and displaced the little blanched pebbles in an expensive flurry), ample stones, tall windows, a black metal “S” to keep some sagging stonework together, a stout old front door, a bent black iron boot scraper (the kind you could never buy, only inherit). It was circa 1860. Alan Querry hadn’t built it, but sometimes felt as if he had. Here he and Cathy had brought up Vanessa and Helen, and here he had raised them, after Cathy walked out. Here was the window he’d replaced, on his own, there the guttering he’d fixed, on his own, there the garage roof he’d replaced with the help of Rob, the slightly retarded odd-job man from the village.

It looked like the place of someone who’d done well for himself. He lived in the poshest part of Northumberland, where all the neighbors, if that was the word for people so richly distant, seemed to be “gentleman farmers.” They had all boarded at Eton, and strode around the county wearing those rust-colored baggy corduroys, tired but glowing somehow like the embers of old money. (Where did they get those “old” but very expensive new clothes? New & Lingwood, Jermyn Street, London: he’d once shopped there himself, triumphant but sweaty in the hushed emporium.) His nearest neighbor was a balding, middle-aged baronet, a gentle but unremarkable chap who had done nothing at all in his life, and whose only distinction, celebrated in the area, was that he read The Shining when it was first published, and was so scared he’d been unable to sleep for three whole days and nights.

It wasn’t Alan’s world. His father left school at sixteen and went into the shipbuilding industry in Newcastle. Da was clever and industrious, and was soon working at Parsons, buying parts for their great steam turbines. Alan was born in Newcastle; after the war, the Querry family moved to Durham, and Da eventually opened a big hardware shop there—on Saddler Street, on the way up to the cathedral. His father had truly established himself; not just a “shopkeeper” but a “proprietor,” whose name was proverbial in town: “I’m popping into Querry’s.” Da never made more of it than that, though. It was seeing his father try and fail to expand, try and fail to acquire a second shop, that gave Alan the idea of going into property—first in Durham, then in Newcastle, York, Manchester. Their only child liked making enough money of his own to buy his parents a brand-new Volvo—the only new car they ever owned—and to pay his dad’s hospice bills, when the end came.

Now he was paying his mum’s bills, and he couldn’t afford it, and no one, least of all Helen and Vanessa, would believe him when he told them this, it would be incomprehensible to them. How could the Querry Property Group, with buildings throughout the north of England, even a shiny (but it was only one-room!) new office in Manchester and a fancy website designed by an American firm from Salt Lake City—how could all that not keep on paying and paying?

For so many years, after Cathy left, and after the children went off to university, the house had seemed desperately quiet; the thick carpet held the ghost of their footsteps.

He walked across the gravel and pushed open the heavy front door. Otter jumped from his basket, writhing with pleasure. He hadn’t seen Candace’s car at the front, so perhaps she was out. There was no one in the kitchen, nor in the expensively subdued sitting room. The French windows glowed; the short February afternoon was sloping away. It was very still. For so many years, after Cathy left, and after the children went off to university, the house had seemed desperately quiet; the thick carpet held the ghost of their footsteps. He even thought about selling the beautiful old place. Candace had changed all that. His daughters, Helen especially, didn’t much like her. Among other things, they found her free-market anticommunism strident. Well, he didn’t like Candace’s politics that much; he’d always been reflexively Labour, everyone in Durham was, even the successful ones who “got away.” Maybe they were jealous, as they got older and grayer and wider—as they waned (Vanessa’s coinage, combining “wane” and “wan”)—jealous of her still-black hair, straight and glossy, her trim hips, her formidable vitality. The only time he’d seriously attempted to get his daughters together with Candace, they argued about whether Mrs. Thatcher had been “a net benefit” to the country (Candace’s brisk conclusion) or a bloody disaster (Helen’s). Vanessa later said she found Candace “coercive”; Van had sulked like a child and retreated to her bedroom, he now recalled.

Whatever Vanessa and Helen felt about the situation, he’d been saved by Candace, that he was sure about. She was ten years younger than him, and had great optimism and strength. She had saved him from solitude, from overwork and the widower’s musty celibacy, saved him from aging, from dying, even.

“Candace! . . . Candace, love?”

She was in the small television room at the back of the house, sitting cross-legged on a dense round cushion. For over a decade, Candace had been a management consultant in Hong Kong, but she told Alan she had never liked it much. A year ago she decided to train to become a Buddhist psychotherapist. There was an emphasis on meditation, of course—and gardens, somehow. The self like a plant, perhaps—growing, dying, reborn. She now spent a fair amount of time sitting on that low cushion, which was covered in crimson chinoiserie, and he knew it was coarse of him but she always seemed to be basically asleep, not meditating. Helen said that Candace lacked any obvious therapeutic gifts. (“It’s like Quincy Jones attempting monogamy.”) Alan laughed willingly, and later looked up “Quincy Jones” on Google. It wasn’t true, not at least about Candace Lee.

She was intense, dry, coherent: she could do no wrong. Alan saw that she was shoeless—her naked feet.

“Did you tell her?” Candace disliked his mother, was amusingly bad at hiding it.

“Well, I told her I had to go to America.”

“Of course I don’t mean that, Alan. You didn’t tell her why you’re going there?” She got up from the floor, as if it was easy.

“I don’t think this is the right moment,” he said. “I’ll wait till I’ve come back.”

“You were afraid.”

“I suppose I am, a bit.”

She drew closer and lightly tapped his chest.

“You can’t be afraid, you have to be there for Vanessa. She needs you.”

“Be there for her . . .”

“Yes, you have to be there for her, I’m not embarrassed by that phrase. You are her father, so you must embody what it means to go on, why you go on doing what you do.”

“You are her father, so you must embody what it means to go on, why you go on doing what you do.”

“I ‘go on,’ I suppose, because I don’t think about life too much.”

“Like the centipede,” said Candace. “When it discovers it has a hundred legs, it stops being able to walk. That isn’t true about centipedes, it turns out. Most don’t have a hundred legs.”

“Can I use that? When I’m over in Saratoga Springs?”

She looked at him sternly, an atmosphere of hers he particularly liked. Candace’s mother had been so relentlessly ambitious, so determined to get out of her impoverished provincial Chinese village, that her school friends mocked her as “the toad who dreams of eating swan meat.”

“You are taking this seriously? Send me, if you’re not going to be serious about it. Vanessa’s life—it isn’t some silly English play.”

Alan thought for a very brief moment about how poorly Candace’s arrival in Saratoga Springs would be received.

“Of course I’m serious. But I can only be myself.”

James Wood is a book critic at The New Yorker and the recipient of a National Magazine Award in criticism. He is the author of essay collections, the novel The Book Against God, and the study How Fiction Works. He is a professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard University.