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[453] Emily, Alone – Stewart O’Nan

” The talk turned to falls, a favorite topic, and timely, with winter coming on, ice their mortal enemy . . . It was the ultimate cautionary tale, the moral being Don’t fall, as if they were of glass. In a sense they were—their fragility was irrefutable, medically proven—and yet Emily detested the inevitable rundown of accidents and tragedies, the more fortunate clicking their tongues and counting their blessings, all the while knowing it was just a matter of time. ” (48-49)

Emily, Alone hinges on Emily Maxwell’s new life after the sale of the cottage where the family, after the death of her husband, spent their last summer, as per Wish You Were Here. Almost a decade has lapsed since that particular gathering, marked by a gamut of emotions and pent-up feelings and tension regarding the loss of Henry Maxwell, the loss of opportunity in individual’s life. Despite the occasional pining for her grandchildren’s visit and nostalgia of her husband, Emily is inured to living alone and established a rigorous routine. While she enjoys the company of Arlene, her sister-in-law, her new car also allows her greater agency over her life.

It was not poverty or its semblance that Emily was afraid of as much as the loss of opportunity . . . Emily didn’t want her children to be rich, or even professionally successful. She wanted them to fulfill their responsibilities to others and to themselves, that was all. They both had so much promise and yet they seemed so unhappy, so easily defeated. (105)

When Arlene faints at the restaurant, it alarms Emily that as she ages, she will have to fend for herself. Being a dependent of Arlene on daily errands, Emily life therefore changes in unexpected ways. As she grapples with her new independence, she discovers a hidden strength and realizes that life always offers new possibilities.

Emily, Alone, as the title so implies, follows the widow’s daily life to the most minute, mundane details. But in the hand of O’Nan, who has a knack for giving small experience an emotional heft, Emily’s ordinary life is made, by its majestically quiet rendering, extraordinary. Unlike the tense dynamics of familial interaction in Wish You Were Here, Emily’s grown-up children and their problems recede to the background in this novel. Although they constantly contribute to Emily’s dismay, they exist only in her passing reflection in this book. Emily, Alone is about Emily alone—mind, soul, and body. It’s about her reminiscence of life and trying to age graciously.

The world was gone . . . The sale of the Millers’ would make official her status as its sole survivor. She supposed the alternative was worse, though occasionally, stricken with self-pity after a lonely dinner and a glass of wine, she wavered. (201)

Underlying the humor and her disdain for common idiocy, O’Nan gives us a portraiture that is an incisive investigation of the ways cultural forces shape private lives. the constant clash, though rather subdued and not pronounced, between Emily and her children has as much to do with generational differences as with issues of temperament and personal inclination. The issues with thank-you notes, vacation planning in advance, and career choices also boil down one contradicting viewpoint: preference for thrift and industry vs. self-expression. Although her life has been a happy one and her disappointments mild, there exist some overwhelming surges of memory that serve only to further her constant sense of loss. Not only the loss of her husband but the loss of an old world in which she was raised and along with it the traditional values that are no longer cherished.

255 pp. Penguin Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


8 Responses

  1. I just read The Odds by Stewart O’Nan, the second book of his I’ve read after Songs for the Missing. I really think he is going to be one of my favorite writers.

    • Indeed. Now I have to ration myself with a book of his every month before I run out! I’ve got Songs for the Missing and Last Night at Lobster. 🙂

  2. I did not read Wish You Were Here but did listen to this one on audio. I have to say (peeking out between my fingers) that I am just not blown away by his work. He is excellent at painting a character, but it just wasn’t enough for me. I DID find it unique to read about an elderly protagonist, and could really relate because so many of my golf buddies are elderly widows.

    • Wish You Were Here has more of interaction dynamics than this one. I do wish you’ll give that a try. Emily, Alone is very character-driven. It’s between stream of consciousness and a day-to-day chronological narrative. I know there isn’t much in here, other than fragmented reminiscence. There’s something about Emily, maybe her stubbornness—like voting Republican even the GOP is no longer what it used to be—and her striving for dignity, that stays with me.

  3. Have you read Last Night at the Lobster? O’Nan is not a favorite of mine overall, but I do appreciate how he can so perfectly imagine his characters’ lives right down to the tiniest details.

    • Last Night at the Lobster is up next. But I have to ration a book each month because I will run out of O’Nan books to read. 🙂 I don’t mind character-driven books as long as the writing is contemplative.

  4. I need to read both of these. I like the idea of getting to follow this main character on her life journey.

  5. […] 17. Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner 18. The Hand That First Held Mine, Maggie O'Farrell 19. Emily, Alone, Stewart […]

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