January 27, 2013
Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan
Rating: 4.75/5 (Terrific!)
It's the fall of 2007 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The upcoming presidential race is starting to take shape. The Steelers are on the march to a division title. But on Grafton Street near Highland Park, the days and nights can be disturbingly quiet for Emily Maxwell, a woman in her late seventies still trying to adjust to life without her beloved and recently deceased husband, Henry. With her old cadre of friends dwindling one by one and her two adult children living far away and wrapped up in their own lives, Emily does her best to fill her days by listening to classical music on the radio, reading George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, and caring for her aging but obstreperous dog Rufus. She lives an outwardly placid life of visits to art museums, gossip at her club, and two-for-one buffet breakfasts at the Eat 'n Park with her sister-in-law Arlene. That placidity is shattered, however, when, one morning at the Eat 'n Park, Arlene's speech suddenly garbles and she collapses to the floor. Arlene, after a brief stay at the hospital, is fine, but is Emily? Forced more than ever to look to her own resources, more conscious than ever that her own remaining time on earth will not likely be long, Emily quietly and slowly resumes a more active control of her life, determined to fill the days that she has left with thought, emotion, and meaning.
In Emily, Alone, with supreme sensitivity and exquisite detail, novelist Stewart O'Nan follows Emily through the better part of a year, illuminating her daily tasks, her holiday celebrations, and her unspoken yearnings and disappointments. In the pages of Emily, Alone readers already familiar with the Maxwell family from O'Nan's earlier novel Wish You Were Here are reunited with Emily's recovering alcoholic daughter Margaret and diligent, eager-to-please son Kenneth. Those who are meeting the family for the first time may find themselves strangely familiar with both the ties of emotion and experience that bind the Maxwells together and the subtle tensions that complicate their interactions. With a rare deftness of observation and minuteness of description, O'Nan shows us not merely a family but family itself—the sturdy but sensitive web that assumes so many different shapes but is somehow everywhere the same.
Eager for love but also unable to resist her need to direct the lives of her relatives, Emily Maxwell continually walks an emotional tightrope, striving simultaneously to recruit affection from her children and grandchildren but also to remind them that grandmother knows best. Ever conscious of her age and the widening gap between her own ideas and the mainstream of her society, she walks other tightropes as well: between a consciousness of change and a yearning for stasis; between the lengthening past and the shortening future; between the enduring preciousness of life and the inevitability of death. In Emily, Alone, Stewart O'Nan infuses the everyday with a miraculous vividness and urgency. Through Emily Maxwell, he firmly declares that no life is ordinary.
I loved this book! It was just the right thing to read during the busy holiday season, as the chapters are short (almost vignettes) and I could easily pick it up and set it down without losing interest. I loved Emily (and her loyal dog, Rufus) and I found myself nodding my head, feeling a bit like I was seeing a glimpse of my future self in some of Emily's situations and emotions. It also brought to mind memories of my maternal grandmother (who lived alone for 11 years after the death of my grandfather), as well as reflecting on my relationships with my mother (who turns 80 this year) and my daughter (who will be 30!).
One might consider the subject of an elderly widow too depressing, but I thought it was an uplifting novel and one in which O'Nan deftly paints a realistic portrait of the aging. The only other book I've read by this author is Last Night at the Lobster and I wasn't terribly impressed, although I sure had fun writing my review. I doubt I would have given Emily, Alone a second glance, had I not read Nan's wonderful review. I encourage you to visit her blog and see what she has to say about this gem of a book. She has included several passages that will give you an idea of the author's superb attention to detail.
Final Thoughts: This one's a keeper! I am definitely adding Wish You Were Here and The Odds to my 2013 reading list!