Book Review: “Wish You Well” by David Baldacci

By Virginia Fay

New York Times bestselling author David Baldacci is known for his fast-paced, plot-based, legal thrillers. But from the first page of “Wish You Well,” it’s clear this will be an exception to the rule.

“Wish You Well” is set in 1940 New York City with the Cardinal family — made up of the celebrated writer Jack Cardinal, doting mother and wife Amanda, uncommonly clever 12-year-old Lou and shy but soft-hearted seven-year-old Oz. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes quickly and hard; a terrible car crash leaves the family bereft of Jack and Amanda little better — alive, but mentally unresponsive.

This calamity is the truest test for the children’s mettle and immediately allows the reader to see what the Cardinal children are made of. Oz, whose tenderheartedness is nearly painful, serves as the eternal optimist, believing without fail that his beloved mother will get better, while Lou is forced to be the backbone for both of them, protecting her brother and herself at every turn.

Directly after their father’s funeral, the pair is sent, along with their mother, to live in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia with Jack’s grandmother, the setting that provided the inspiration for Jack’s famous novels. The area is rural in the extreme, but Baldacci writes of life on the hill with such simple, beautifully crafted prose that you can almost picture waking at five in the morning to milk the cows — and maybe not even minding.

Life is hard on the hill, but Lou and Oz adjust to the backbreaking work and simple life with a startling swiftness. Easily the most traditionally educated people among the mountain farmers, they have a lot to learn about the way of the land. But, resilient as children are, they waste no time in blending right in to the way of life on the hill.

Though Appalachian culture is different from any in the world, it’s still easy to relate to the characters. All are depicted with lovingly detailed descriptions; so each tragedy that strikes is equally heartbreaking.

However, for every low there must be a high, and the Cardinal family spirit simply can’t be broken. The children’s lovable nature wins them friends at every turn, and those they can’t win over can be beaten with the combined strength of the close-knit hill community.

Conflicts between the ever-faithful farming tradition and the coal miners sucking the life out of the land cause problems when the industry has an offer that would seem to ease the often desperate lifestyle of the farmers — if they’ll sell their land. However, Louisa Mae Cardinal, the children’s great-grandmother, refuses to relinquish her land in a way that epitomizes the strong, faithful vein of the Cardinal family.

As mentioned before, “Wish You Well” is a clear departure from Baldacci’s usual style. This novel is far more character than plot-driven, and though it does involve a clever legal battle and a few unexpected surprises, for the most part it’s sheer nostalgia. It’s about a way of life based on hard work, few luxuries and big-hearted, quiet love. Love for the entire community of farmers, love for family and a deep-seeded love for the land. Lou and Oz find a way to fit in with these core values without delay, and those closest to Louisa Mae’s heart find no difficulty in embracing them just as briskly.

Though the plot does a fair job of holding interest, it is not the novel’s best attribute. Something about Baldacci’s quiet, simple prose keeps the pages turning, which makes this an instance in which getting there is more than half the fun.

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