The fourth novel by Avon resident Stewart O'Nan is far removed — in style, plot, tone as well as pace — from its predecessor, "The Speed Queen.'' And yet, at their most basic level the two novels do share an underlying theme. They both depict people whose lives are out of whack, individuals who long for some sort of redemption and a return to a semblance of normalcy.
World War II is responsible for much of the turmoil in the Langer family in "A World Away." Son Rennie, after a brief stint as a conscientious objector, enlists as a medic after his college roommate dies in combat. Now Rennie is missing in action and James and Anne Langer and their other son Jay are spending the summer in Hampton Bays on Long Island, at the Langer family homestead.
While death on foreign soil is all over the radio, the newspapers and in the movies, it also lurks at home, as James' father slowly deteriorates throughout the summer. By mid-summer Rennie's wife and their young daughter join the household. Rennie's wife feels guilty about leaving San Diego where she had been waiting , hoping for his return, and yet he has been listed as missing for so long it seems moving East is the practical thing to do.
The waiting for news, good, bad, or in between, is perhaps hardest on 12-year-old Jay, who spends afternoons watching war movies at the local theater and dreams of them at night, with the only change in the action being that it is his brother who stars in all the dying roles.
The war and the waiting also intensify the strains on James and Anne, who have taken turns having affairs and whose relationship barely has a pulse. This is not lost on Jay, who tiptoes about the house, rarely speaking to anyone. Since it is summer, and the house is near the ocean, and he has made a new friend, Jay is in the house as little as possible.
Throughout all the tension of this domestic cold war, O'Nan, author of "Snow Angels," and "The Names of the Dead," is masterful at creating moods and tapping feelings and emotions that, if expressed by the characters, are done so obliquely. The past is never far away in such disorienting times, as when Anne thinks back to her prim childhood: "Anne knew not to ask for a treat until they got home, and then it would be a peach, not an ice cream. She had to eat it at the kitchen table, from a bowl; even as she obeyed, she pictured herself running around the front yard, waving the cone like an airplane for everyone driving by to see, the ice cream running in strings down her arm, her cheeks smudged with chocolate. When she appeared in her father's sermons, she was always wise, reminding him of the elemental, shredding his worldliness with a child's pure logic. Her whole life, hadn't she dreamed of being normal?''
Hardly anything is normal around the Langer household this gloomy sunny summer of war. Even good news bears the seeds of new and complex familial tensions. This is not a novel for those who expect resolution, much less happy endings. Toward the end of the novel a moment of levity somehow sneaks into the dialogue and it makes the reader sit up and take notice.
No, this world O'Nan has conjured up is of a time and a place and a family who would declare anything more than a semblance of normalcy a moral victory. Or perhaps what they have is normal; that may be what the author is telling us.