Perhaps it's hard to imagine a novel centering on an 80-year-old woman where not much happens to be compelling and even fascinating. But in the hands of Stewart O'Nan, this story is just that and more.
In EMILY, ALONE, O'Nan revisits Emily Maxwell, who was introduced in his earlier book, WISH YOU WERE HERE, and follows her through one gray Pittsburgh winter and into the spring. The pace, like Emily's own, is slow and rhythmic with an attention to detail, feeling, and the subtle changes in self and season that we so often allow to pass us by without notice or comment. With the aging but independent Emily as a guide, the life of an elderly woman is portrayed with lovely observation, thoughtful insight, and a gracefulness of language that makes this novel transcend particulars and move toward the universal.
Emily still lives in the house she shared with her husband, Henry, and where she raised her two children, Margaret and Kenneth. Now her only housemate is an aging dog named Rufus. But she spends many days with her friend and sister-in-law, Arlene, at their favorite restaurant, at church, at their country club, or at the funerals of friends and neighbors. When Arlene, who was always the driver on their excursions, has an episode that lands her in the hospital, Emily must drive for the first time in a long time. The sense of freedom and accomplishment is powerful and uplifting.
As she still pines for her family, frets over her own funeral arrangements, deeply misses her husband, keeps busy with mundane tasks, longs for the springtime, and worries about Rufus, Emily takes a chance and buys a new car. She surprises herself with her daring, yet remains acutely aware of the passage of time and its effect on her and those around her throughout the novel. O'Nan wonderfully captures both the inertia and momentum of aging. Emily's tale is never dull, even when it painstakingly recounts the smallest details of her daily life.
Emily's family, who lives far away, remains distant --- physically and emotionally --- for most of the novel. With so many friends and relations dead, the book is really Emily's alone. The supporting characters are all interesting and well-written, but the story is almost a solo act; yet reading over 250 pages about Emily is never dull. Even as she moves from room to room changing out boxes of tissues, O'Nan writes Emily with a compassion and humanity that draws readers in.
Despite its focus on the small and everyday, EMILY, ALONE is not without tension. But the tension here is mainly emotional, the conflict interior. Readers are lucky enough to be privy to Emily's thinking, which is sometimes funny, often bittersweet, and always quite honest. It is an elegant examination of aging, family and identity with a fine balance of the surprising and the expected. It is at once optimistic and totally realistic, and every page is a joy to read.
As a sequel or stand-alone title, EMILY, ALONE is an understated yet powerful character study from one of America's outstanding storytellers.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on March 28, 2011