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August 21, 2019

Henry, Himself



Henry, Himself by Stewart O'Nan
Fiction
2019 Viking
Finished on August 9, 2019
Rating: 5/5 (Excellent!)

Publisher's Blurb:

A member of the greatest generation looks back on the loves and losses of his past and comes to treasure the present anew in this poignant and thoughtful new novel from a modern master

Stewart O’Nan is renowned for illuminating the unexpected grace of everyday life and the resilience of ordinary people with humor, intelligence, and compassion. In this prequel to the beloved Emily, Alone, he offers an unsentimental, moving life story of a twentieth-century everyman.

Soldier, son, lover, husband, breadwinner, churchgoer, Henry Maxwell has spent his whole life trying to live with honor. A native Pittsburgher and engineer, he’s always believed in logic, sacrifice, and hard work. Now, seventy-five and retired, he feels the world has passed him by. It’s 1998, the American century is ending, and nothing is simple anymore. His children are distant, their unhappiness a mystery. Only his wife Emily and dog Rufus stand by him. Once so confident, as Henry’s strength and memory desert him, he weighs his dreams against his regrets and is left with questions he can’t answer: Is he a good man? Has he done right by the people he loves? And with time running out, what, realistically, can he hope for?

Like Emily, Alone, Henry, Himself is a wry, warmhearted portrait of an American original who believes he’s reached a dead end only to discover life is full of surprises.

Emily, Alone (which I absolutely loved) tells the story of Emily Maxwell after the death of her husband, Henry. Now O'Nan turns back the clock and gives us this remarkable prequel, showing us Henry's point-of-view as a husband and a father. This character-driven novel is comprised of short chapters (or vignettes), which share the details of everyday life ranging from concerns and worries for adult children (and grandchildren) to mundane chores such as tending a lawn, making an ATM bank deposit or outsmarting a mouse. At seventy-five, Henry is well-aware of his mortality, scanning the obituaries and paying close attention to the age of those listed in the columns. With all the struggles and frustrations that come with marriage and parenthood, Henry is patient and understanding while Emily is more brusque and testy. After nearly 50 years of marriage, they no longer need to fill their conversations with inane chatter or lengthy explanations. They know each other so well, they can speak in the briefest of sentences and know what the other is thinking. Well, for the most part. Even the closest relationships have misunderstandings. While their love is long-standing and faithful, O'Nan shares Henry's insecurities and weaknesses, creating one of the most well-drawn and vivid male character I've encountered in a novel.

I loved this deeply affecting book for its honest glimpse into a man's heart and mind. Not since The Arrivals (Meg Mitchell Moore) have I read something so profoundly real with regard to family dynamics.  I can't say that I always know what my own husband is thinking or feeling, but after nearly 31 years of marriage, I can guess what he will say after reading this review. "Sounds like an excruciatingly boring book!" I disagree and I look forward to reading Wish You Were Here (which is the first in this trilogy) before giving Emily, Alone a second reading. Bravo, Mr. O'Nan. This is a gem.

Click here to learn more about the novel.

14 comments:

  1. Oh, this does sound good. It makes me think of my father.

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    1. Jenclair, it is such a wonderful book. I plan to buy a copy since the one I read was a library book. It's a keeper!

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  2. I can't believe I've never read O'Nan. Both this and Emily, Alone sound like books I'd like.

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    1. Kathy, these are such great books. I also read Last Night At the Lobster, but didn't care for it as much as these two. Looking back on my review, I wonder if I might enjoy it better now. O'Nan's books really don't have much of a plot; it's the characters who are so wonderful.

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  3. I need to read some Stewart O’Nan! I know that Nan has read quite a few of his books and loves them, too.

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    1. Robin, if I could do it over, I would start with the first (Wish You Were Here) and then read Emily, Alone and end with Henry, Himself. I'm not sure if I missed anything by having not read Wish You Were Here, but I do like to read books in order. ;)

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  4. I remember you reading the first two books in the trilogy and thinking they probably weren't for me. However, I think they might all be more appealing now. I'll keep them in mind. And as to husband's and what they would say, mine would echo yours. This would not be his kind of book at all.

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    1. Kay, I haven't read the first in the trilogy, but have it on order and can't wait to read it. Yep, Rod said this sounds boring. No car chases. No mystery. There is a dog, though. He would like Rufus. :)

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  5. This was very good; I do love the way Stewart O'Nan write. Glad you liked it as well.

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  6. Diane, he's becoming one of my favorite authors.

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  7. I'm going to go right now to see if I can get this series from our library. Thanks for the lovely recommendation. (So funny, what you imagine your husband's response to be!)

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    1. Laurel, I don't know if it matters (since I didn't read them this way), but I would start with Wish You Were Here, and then read Emily, Alone. Henry, Himself should probably be read last. I have Wish You Were Here winging its way to me and plan to read it while on our road trip. We leave in 12 days!!!

      Yes, I know my husband's reading tastes pretty well. :)

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  8. This sounds so wonderful. Do you think it's better to read this one before Emily, Alone?

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    1. Iliana, it honestly didn't bother me to read Emily, Alone first, but it was several years ago. Had I read them back-to-back, it might have mattered. I just bought Wish You Were Here (the first book published in this trilogy) and will read it on our trip. So, I'm really reading these out of order, but it doesn't bother me. Not like a mystery series! :)

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