Sunday, October 9, 2011

Emily, Alone

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan
Penguin Group, 2011
Hardcover, 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780670022359
A sequel to the bestselling, much-beloved Wish You Were Here, Stewart O’Nan’s intimate new novel follows Emily Maxwell, a widow whose grown children have long moved away. She dreams of visits by her grandchildren while mourning the turnover of her quiet Pittsburgh neighborhood, but when her sole companion and sister-in-law Arlene faints at their favorite breakfast buffet, Emily’s days change. As she grapples with her new independence, she discovers a hidden strength and realizes that life always offers new possibilities. Like most older women, Emily is a familiar yet invisible figure, one rarely portrayed so honestly. Her mingled feelings-of pride and regret, joy and sorrow- are gracefully rendered in wholly unexpected ways. Once again making the ordinary and overlooked not merely visible but vital to understanding our own lives, Emily, Alone confirms O’Nan as an American master.

My Thoughts:

The Stewart O'Nan fan club is back in session. Please note that O'Nan is incapable of writing a bad book. All reviews of his books here at She Treads Softly are done only in comparison to his other books. They are all very highly recommended.

In Emily, Alone it is amazing how Stewart O'Nan realistically captures the inner thoughts of  Emily Maxwell, an 80 year old middle class widow in Pittsburgh. Her life revolves around future visits from her children and grandchildren, Tuesday breakfast buffets with her sister-in-law, Arlene (using, naturally, a two for one coupon), her dog Rufus, and attendance at the early church service. Emily is financially secure and has her health.

It was amazing how seemingly effortlessly O'Nan captures the life of an elderly woman. Loving difficult family members, visiting an art museum, dealing with the aging of a beloved pet, following a certain radio station, feeling disenfranchised politically, being dismayed over a scratch on the car, attending funerals for friends who have passed away, making sure Christmas cards are sent out in time... I know this woman, who plans meals for visits down to the smallest details and whose year is planned by holidays. When O'Nan records and captures all these commonplace parts of Emily's life, they are clearly routine parts of many people's daily lives.

Emily, Alone is a sequel to Wish You Were Here, however readers do not need to have read Wish You Were Here to appreciate Emily, Alone.  Emily may be an aging woman, but her life is depicted with honesty, dignity, and compassion rather than sappy sentimentality. O'Nan follows Emily's life in short chapters using precise prose. While thrill seekers maybe won't be satisfied with this very quiet introspective novel that follows the seemingly mundane days of Emily, sensitive readers who can appreciate an exquisitely drawn detailed character study will cherish every word. 

Very Highly Recommended - one of the best


Tuesdays, Emily Maxwell put what precious little remained of her life in God's and her sister-in-law Arlene's shaky hands and they drove together to Edgewood for Eat'n Park's two-for-one breakfast buffet. The Sunday Post-Gazette, among its myriad other pleasures, had coupons. The rest of the week she might have nothing but melba toast and tea for breakfast, maybe peel herself a Clementine for some vitamin C, but the deal was too good to pass up, and served as a built-in excuse to get out of the house. opening

She was dying, yes, fine, they all were, by degrees. If Dr. Sayid expected her to be devastated by the idea, that only showed how young he was. There was no point in going into hysterics. It wasn’t the end of the world, just the end of her, and lately she’d come to think that was natural, and possibly something to be desired, if it could be achieved with a modicum of dignity, not pointlessly drawn out, like Louise undergoing all those torturous last-ditch procedure because Timothy and Daniel refused to give up. pg. 3

"Taking no chances, I see," said Arlene, whose own hair was a deep henna she's adopted a few years ago, and which, like Arlene's carmine lipstick, Emily considered garish, too young. pg. 4

When she was young, the city was her new world. Now it seemed she was losing it piece by piece. pg. 11

It was just one of her spells, Arlene insisted. She had them whenever her blood pressure dipped too low. She didn't seem too surprised. pg. 16

"Do you have any idea who these people are?" Arlene asked, pointing at the TV.

"They all seem to wear a lot of makeup," Emily said. "Especially the men." pg. 21

"That's all right," Emily said, because it wasn't a proper offer, just a sop, and once she'd said, "I love you," and gotten off, she wondered why she'd brought this insult upon herself. For a while she sat in Henry's chair, pinching her lips between her thumb and forefinger, pondering what perverse urge made her ask Margaret the one question she'd specifically forbidden herself. Flopped at her feet, Rufus raised his head to look at her, then let it drop back to the carpet. pg. 25

"It's only two more days," Emily said, patting her hand, but she understood. Of all people, she knew how easily one's world could be taken away. pg. 30

The temptation was to mourn those days, when they were young and busy and alive. As much as Emily missed them, she understood the reason that era seemed so rich - partly, at least - was because it was past, memorialized, the task they'd set themselves of raising families accomplished. The thought of Margaret was enough to remind her that not all of their times had been happy, that, in truth, much of it had been a struggle, one that was far from over, if that was in fact possible. pg. 55

She was too used to living alone. While she loved them all dearly, she'd forgotten how exhausting other people could be. pg. 104 


Jeanne said...

While I like some of these quotations, I find Emily a bit precious. My father is in his 80s and isn't resigned to dying like she is; I'm not sure I believe anyone can be. I prefer Olive Kitteridge, although Emily sounds like an easier person to spend time with.

Lori L said...

I swear I know Emily... or women of a certain age that think and act the same and they are accepting that their death is inevitable. (I guess that now is the time to also admit that it can be tiresome when they plan every meal and schedule events around every holiday.)

LisaMM said...

I'm a big O'Nan fan, but I'm just not sure about this one. I'm going to look for it at the library and thumb through it a bit before I decide.