Have you ever experienced reading déjà vu? You’re reading along in some great new novel your friendly neighborhood librarian suggested (of course!)… and you get that fuzzy, peripheral-vision feeling that maybe you’ve read this before. The characters or the setting or just something feels familiar.
Sometimes I’ve discovered that I really have read a book before, and it’s not my fault! Be especially wary of U.S. editions of Agatha Christie novels, which often sport a new title and cover and entice American readers into believing they have found a lost Agatha to enjoy. (The sad truth is that, though she was prolific, Agatha Christie wrote a finite number of books and they have all been published; not a one lies unfound in a dusty cupboard of an aging descendant, as much as that would be a terrific setup for an Agatha Christie novel. Try a Dorothy Sayers instead – Gaudy Night is as divine a reading experience as you’ll ever have – or try your hand at the many great novels that have been nominated or won the Agatha Award, named in the great one’s honor.)
And sometimes, it’s not the same novel I’ve read before, but there are so many sympathies and similarities between the novel I’m currently reading and a novel I’ve read before that they feel like siblings, if not identical twins.
Two novels gave me that kind of déjà vu last year: Wish You Were Here by Stewart O’Nan (his superb 2011 Emily, Alone, was a kind of sequel) and Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan (her 2009 debut Commencement is compulsively readable).
Both feature tense and knotty family relationships, a summer setting, and a family cabin on water. Additionally, both weigh in at respectable page lengths (388 pages for Maine, 517 for Wish You Were Here), and both – though about summer and beaches– are more substantial than your usual summer beach reads.
Now, when you discover twin déjà-read novels, it’s inevitable that one will outshine the other. Although Maine has its fans, and I was certainly impressed with Sullivan’s deft handling of such a saga-esque story, with many different strands and characters to pull together, it is Wish You Were Here that constantly had me amazed – the perfect sentence, sentence after sentence, the perfectly wrought family-tension moment, followed by another perfectly wrought family-tension-threaded-with-momentary-joy moment. In fact, while reading Maine, after I identified what was making me feel that déjà-read feeling, I kept thinking, “Oh, Stewart O’Nan would have made this more subtle…” or “Gosh, this prose isn’t awful, but it just doesn’t have the simplicity and style that Stewart O’Nan writes in his sleep.” And so on.