Alan Querry, a 68-year-old divorced property developer from Northumberland, is preoccupied with contrasts. While visiting Vanessa, his Skidmore College philosophy professor daughter, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., he doggedly compares American and English portion sizes, newspaper obituaries and so on. He also compares Vanessa, long prone to depression, with her younger sister, Helen, a vivacious Sony record company executive in London, who accompanies Alan on the anxious overseas visit.
Alan and Helen have been summoned to Saratoga Springs by Josh, Vanessa's live-in boyfriend, who e-mailed to say that Vanessa had been depressed since December and that right before Christmas she fell down the stairs and broke her arm. Although plot isn't among its chief concerns, Upstate offers a central mystery: Is Vanessa's broken arm the result of self-sabotage?
The second novel by New Yorker book critic James Wood (The Book Against God), Upstate is put together with the author's customary dashing prose. (A character once typed a novel on an old Corona "for the beatnik hell of it.") While modest in length, the book has the heft of a grander undertaking. Upstate is set in early 2007, on the cusp of wariness-making technological innovation; as Alan thinks at one point, "The screen had replaced the window." Points of view wander across pages, tied to characters who fear both the future and being left behind--technologically, geographically, mortally. Vanessa might do well to consider Alan's coping strategy, exclusive to neither Americans nor the English: "I 'go on,' I suppose, because I don't think about life too much." --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer