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Emily, Alone: A Novel [Hardcover]

Stewart O'Nan
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

March 22 2011
From the author of Last Night at the Lobster, a moving vision of love and family.

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 vists 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.


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About the Author

Stewart O'Nan is the author of a dozen award-winning novels, including Snow Angels, A Prayer for the Dying, and The Good Wife, as well as several works of nonfiction, including, with Stephen King, the bestselling Faithful. He lives in Pittsburgh.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful Insightful Read Aug. 17 2011
Format:Hardcover
Emily Maxwell an 80ish widow living on her own in her family home. Over time, Emily has lost her confidence in driving, and relies on her sister - in - law, Arlene, to drive Emily when she needs to get out. Emily's life changes when Arlene has a spell and ends up in hospital - and Emily bravely begins to drive again.

This is slow moving book, with much refection by Emily on her past, her future, and her family, with whom she has some challenging relationships.

More than anything, this is a thoughtful, insightful look into what growing old and having to contemplate the end of your life might be like. As I read about Emily's concern's about her children, their lack of interest in her I could not help but think of the elderly in my life and how challenging life must be for them. Prior to reading this book, I don't think I fully understood, or empathized as much as I could.

Emily's days and weeks are those of once a week lunch dates, wondering if she will outlive her dog, attending funerals of her friends, going to church, being cheered by the once a week visit of her house house cleaner.

While this book may sound boring, truly it is a remarkable book in it's attention to detail, and the author's ability to bring to our attention the all too common invisible elderly people that surround us . Stewart O'Nan sensitively and thoughtfully portrays the challenges and small joys of growing old.

Very much recommended.
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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  107 reviews
146 of 146 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Most Ordinary, Extraordinary Life March 20 2011
By Jill I. Shtulman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Stewart O'Nan may simply be genetically incapable of writing a bad book. His characters are written with precision, intelligence and detail; they're so luminously alive that a reader can accurately guess about what they're eating for dinner or what brand toothpaste they use.

In Emily, Alone, Mr. O'Nan revisits Emily, the Maxell family matriarch from a prior book, Wish You Were Here. Anyone who is seeking an action-based book or "a story arc" (as taught in college writing classes) will be sorely disappointed. But for those readers who are intrigued by a near-perfect portrait of a winningly flawed elderly woman who is still alive with anxieties, hopes, and frustrations, this is an unsparingly candid and beautifully rendered novel.

Emily Maxwell is part of a gentle but dying breed, a representative of a generation that is anchored to faith, friends and family. She mourns the civilities that are gradually going the way of the dinosaur - thank you notes, Mother's Day remembrances, and the kindness of strangers. Her two adult children have turned out imperfect - a recovering alcoholic daughter and an eager-to-please son who often acquiesces to an uncaring daughter-in-law.

With her old cadre of friends dwindling and her children caught up in their own lives, Emily fills her days with two-for-one buffet breakfasts with her sister-in-law Arlene, classical music, and her daily routine with her obstreperous dog Rufus, who is instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent life with an aging, sometimes unruly, always goofy and loving animal.

Whether she's caring for and about her Arlene, trying to keep up with family holiday traditions, keeping tabs on a house sale nearby, and trying to do the right thing in educating her children about executor's duties, Emily struggles to find purpose. She recognizes that time is not on her side any longer and reflects, "The past was the past. Better to work on the present instead of wallowing, and yet the one comforting thought was also the most infuriating. Time, which had her on the rack, would just as effortlessly rescue her. This funk was temporary. Tomorrow she would be fine."

The thing is, we all know Emily. She is our grandmother, our mother, our piano teacher, our neighbor. She is the woman who gets up each day and attends the breakfast buffet or participates in a church auction, or waits eagerly for the mail carrier or feels perplexed about preening teenagers who blast their stereo too loud. She is the one who wonders whether she should have tried a little harder with her kids, even though "she'd tried beyond the point where others might have reasonably given up." She is the one who senses that life is waning but still intends to hang on as long as possible and go for the gusto.

The fact that Stewart O'Nan can take an "invisible woman" - someone we nod to pleasantly and hope she won't engage us in conversation too long - and explore her interior and exterior life is testimony to his skill. Mr. O'Nan writes about every woman...and shows that there is no life that can be defined as ordinary.
77 of 79 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful and unsentimental March 17 2011
By "switterbug" Betsey Van Horn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a gentle, sensitive, but unsentimental story about the marginalized lives of the elderly. Eighty-year-old Pittsburgh widow Emily Maxwell lives alone with her ripe old intractable dog, Rufus, in the modest and dignified neighborhood where she raised her children and loved her husband. She's alert, oriented, and productive in the garden, a wisp of a woman with a waning appetite and bones like balsa. She goes about her days with routine ruminations and mingled sensations. Her nights are lonely and sometimes sleepless.

You learn so much about Emily though her deliberations, her friendship with sister-in-law, Arlene, her dynamics with family, and her devotion to Rufus, who is one of the most convincing, unadulterated dogs I've met in a book. Emily's uncluttered life is centered on her aging dog, on waiting to see her children and grandchildren, (who live far away), and attending the funerals of her peers. Her faith is fastidious and her charity is steadfast. She's frugal, but not parsimonious. Of course, Emily isn't without blemishes--she has her own peculiarities and peckish ways, the details that make a fictional character authentic and memorable.

O'Nan's portrait of Emily is bald and unflinching. Many issues that affect the elderly are addressed and thoroughly examined. What happens in this story is conveyed through small gestures, in Emily's day-to-day activities, in the minutiae of her thoughts and conversations. Her transactions with the younger world around her are subtly shattering, the visible world that casts her to the sidelines and render her invisible. But Emily isn't pitiful--far from it. O'Nan's polished, unstinting prose and nuanced narrative paint a portrait of a plain and austere woman who has lived an unadorned, faithful life, a woman of her time. But beneath the wrinkles, the papery skin and the murmuring heart, there is a fragrance of youth and passion, too.

This niche book will appeal to you if the subject of aging and a protagonist who is elderly can sustain your interest. There's no fury or zeal or stormy drama inside these pages. It's an unhurried start and a gradual completion. The familiar peccadillos of ordinary people are the purr and the glue of this story. In lesser hands, it would have sagged and sputtered. However, O'Nan keeps the pace with the surest way I know--crystalline prose and consummate humanity. And a formidable dog! Highly recommended for literature lovers.
31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly powerful character study March 25 2011
By Bookreporter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars O'Nan does it again! March 27 2011
By Jonathan E. Evison - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
O'nan's winning combination of pathos, intelligence, curiosity and heroic range, make the dude a national treasure. Like Steinbeck (and Dickens and Twain), O'Nan writes about "the little people." He's a bard for the blue collar, reporting on the quiet and sometimes desperate lives of decent folks who may not be making headlines with their heroism, but in whom we recognize ourselves with a clarity that is all too rare in modern literature.

His forthcoming novel, Emily Alone, though it is something of a sequel to 2003's Wish You Were Here, stands on its own beautifully (I know, because I never read Wish You Were Here!) Through the eyes of Emily Maxwell, and elderly Pittsburgh widow, O'Nan offers us, among other things, a portrait of a disappearing America.

In short, it is a story of re-invention. Like his little masterpiece Last Night at the Lobster, Emily Alone illuminates the ordinary, until it is nothing short of extraordinary. While there's nothing much mechanical driving the narrative, O'Nan compels us instead with the accumulation of luminous detail. He puts us inside the skin of his characters, and shows us how they live with staggering authenticity. To read about Emily Maxwell, is to live her life under relatively ordinary circumstances. Errands. Housecleaning. Buffets. Drives through suburban Pittsburgh. Sounds dull (so did Last Night at the Lobster!), but it is, in fact, a thrilling accomplishment. O'Nan doesn't merely create sympathetic characters, he builds characters so three dimensional, that we actually empathize with them, actually inhabit them.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Shrinking Circle of Friends March 31 2011
By prisrob - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There comes a time as we grow older when we think of what is to come. How will I be when I am old? How will I die? Will I be happy? the same sort of questions one asks through most steps of life, but we know at this stage that this end is all too clear.

Emily is an eighty year old widow, living in Pittsburgh. She has a large home, seems to be comfortable and dotes on her elderly dog, Rufus. Her sister-in-law, Arlene, is her best friend and most of her social life revolves around Arlene and their old familiar routines. Many of her friends have died, and we find her going to several funerals. We see Emily's heart and mind in a very convincing way. She plans her days by looking at the events she has arranged. Her family is more or less distant, and it is difficult to know what this is really all about. Arlene has an 'incident' at a local breakfast restaurant and is hospitalized. during this time, Emily needs to rely upon her own devices for transportation. She takes out her old Oldsmobile and drives carefully and safely. She finds renewed freedom. With winter arriving her decides to purchase a new car and a nice Subaru with a lot of nice extras is now hers. Life is now a little more exciting.

Emily has ongoing conversations with her dog, Rufus. He understands her and she, him. She reflects on the changing neighborhood and the house across the street that is put up for sale. She calls her children weekly and wishes she were closer, she has a need to feel closer. She says, "Her sole wish, now, was to be closer to them. It was hard to follow their lives from a distance, to send out cards and letters and presents, to call week after week and then receive in return only the barest of news, grudgingly given and heavily censored." She tries to live a full life, trying to reach beyond loneliness to find meaning and structure.

Emily is an old woman, and her days may seem commonplace to some. However, the author, Stewart O'Nan, has given us such a wonderfully written book that is has become difficult to put down. This tale of an elderly widow who must hold on to her dignity as death comes closer. The time she spends alone is telling. She fills her days and nights. She depends upon her neighbors and her weekly cleaning lady. She depends upon Arlene her closest friend, but she is alone and she is preparing.

Highly Recommended. prisrob 03-31-11

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