August 21, 2019
Henry, Himself by Stewart O'Nan
Finished on August 9, 2019
Rating: 5/5 (Excellent!)
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.