Emily, Alone: A Novel Hardcover – Mar 17 2011
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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.
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Praise for Emily, Alone
“O’Nan’s best novel yet . . . It’s heartbreaking stuff—I will confess that I found myself sobbing at certain, often unexpected, points . . . and yet the novel’s brilliance lies just as much in O’Nan’s innate comic timing, which often stems from Emily’s self-imposed isolation from, and disgust with, the modern world. . . . If O’Nan’s earlier novels were influenced by Poe, the specter of Henry James hovers delicately above Emily’s Grafton Street home, insinuating itself into O’Nan’s spiraling, exact sentences and the beautiful, subtle symbolism that permeates the novel.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Emily is as authentic a character as any who ever walked the pages of a novel. She could be our grandmother, our mother, our next-door neighbor, our aunt. Our self . . . In a portrait filled with joy and rue, O’Nan does not wield a wide brush across a vast canvas but, rather, offers an exquisite miniature. Just as Emily prefers Van Gogh’s depiction of a branch of an almond tree over the more spectacular Sunflowers, so, too, do we readers appreciate an ordinary life made, by its quiet rendering, extraordinary. No matter her—and our—unavoidable end, Emily . . . teaches us that small moments not only count but also endure.”
—Mameve Medwed, The Boston Globe
“It takes a deft hand to do justice to the ordinary . . . but, if the mundane matters to you, then Stewart O’Nan is your man. . . . O’Nan’s glory as a writer is that he conveys the full force of the quotidian without playing it for slapstick or dressing it up as Profound. . . . Emily, Alone [is] moody, lightly comic, and absolutely captivating. . . . With economy, wit, and grace, O’Nan ushers us into the shrinking world of a pleasantly flawed, rather ordinary old woman and keeps us readers transfixed by the everyday miracles of monotony.”
—Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air
“To say that nothing happens in this [Emily, Alone] is like saying that there’s nothing going on in that glorious room in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum where Rembrandt’s numerous portraits of his mother hang. . . . [O’Nan] is a seamless craftsman who specializes in the lives of ordinary people. In Emily Maxwell, O’Nan has created a sturdy everywoman, occasionally blemished by pettiness and disdain for common idiocy, but always striving for a moral equilibrium.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“As riveting as a fast-paced thriller, albeit one that delves into the life and psyche of an elderly woman.”
—The Miami Herald
“Stewart O’Nan’s books are not about poverty, life’s crises, gross injustice, or family drama; in fact, there’s very little drama in his works. He has become a spokesperson—in modern fiction—for the regular person, the working person, and now, the elderly. . . . This is a writer who illuminates moments like that one, moments you never even noticed. . . . O’Nan’s thoroughness is like a skill from another time—a quieter time, when it was easier to listen.”
—Los Angeles Times
“O’Nan’s storytelling is as patient and meticulous as his heroine. He illuminates the everyday with splendid precision. Readers who appreciate psychological nuance and fictional filigree will delight in Emily, Alone.”
—Stephen Amidon, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“Emily stretches for a kind of rediscovery. Throughout she is lovable and heartbreaking and real. When this novel ends, in a moment of great hope and vigor, you’ll find yourself missing her terribly.”
—Entertainment Weekly (Grade A)
“O’Nan gives each small experience an emotional heft, and he’s supremely skilled at revealing Emily’s emotional investment in every small change in her life. . . . [A] plainspoken but brassy, somber but straight-talking [tone] infuses this entire nervy, elegant book.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“[O’Nan] is an author who would drive all around town to avoid running over a single cheap thrill. He subverts our desire for commotion and searches instead for drama in the quotidian motions of survivors. . . . [Emily, Alone] quietly shuffles in where few authors have dared to go. And it’s so humane and so finely executed that I hope it finds those sensitive readers who will appreciate it.”
—Ron Charles in The Washington Post
“Emily, Alone demonstrates that though the distance between an incredibly boring book and a fascinating one may seem small, it is actually miles wide. It takes a madly inventive writer to make a novel about an old woman’s daily existence as absorbing as this one is.”
“Stewart O’Nan is a master of introspection.”
—The Denver Post
“O’Nan’s book, with great poignancy and humor, offers a rare glimpse into the life of a woman whose life is nearing an end. . . . [Emily is] an irresistible character—funny, flawed, and thoroughly unsentimental about her inevitable fate. . . . In different hands, this might have been a morose book, but it’s actually delightful. O’Nan’s ability to deliver such a flawless portrait of a woman thirty years his senior speaks to his gifts as a writer.”
—The Dallas Morning News
“Emily, Alone, by Stewart O’Nan, is a book of quiet yet stunning beauty; steady and trim from the outside, like its protagonist, and, just like her, stirring inside with deep longings, intense observations, and a strong attachment to living.”
—The Huffington Post
“O’Nan has the rare ability to make the ordinary seem unordinary in a way that is reminiscent of Updike.”
—The Daily Beast
“Reading Emily, Alone made me think of Charles Dickens. This is somewhat incongruous, because Stewart O’Nan’s novels are not crafted out of the complicated, multilayered plots that we associate with Dickens. But O’Nan does share a laserlike observational talent with the Victorian master—one that can shock the reader into a sense that the story is lifted out of one’s own family or even oneself. . . . O’Nan is a true virtuoso. . . . [Emily] is quietly heroic.”
—William Kist in The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Mr. O’Nan skillfully and sensitively re-creates Emily’s world, from the city streets she nervously navigates in the car to her fears of illness and death.”
“Old age treads the thin line between melancholy and mirth in Stewart O’Nan’s marvelous new novel, Emily, Alone.”
“There’s a calm, enveloping tone to the story that belies its unflinching exploration of a woman’s chronically discontented heart. . . . Its chief pleasure comes from unraveling this little old lady’s mess tangle of emotions.”
“Stewart O’Nan may simply be genetically incapable of writing a bad book. His characters are written with precision, intelligence, and verisimilitude; they’re so luminously alive that a reader can accurately guess about what they’re eating for dinner or what brand toothpaste they use. . . . 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.”
—Mostly Fiction Book Reviews (online)
“[Emily, Alone] 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.”
“[By reading Emily, Alone] it is possible that the reader could reach a deeper understanding of the stage of life or the ways that we visit the sins of our parents on our children or of the folly of holding on to outdated patterns of living. When it comes to showing us to ourselves, Stewart O’Nan is a master.”
—New York Journal of Books
“A warmhearted, clear-eyed portrait of a woman in her dotage who understands that life is both awfully long and woefully short, much of it passed in waiting and regret, but never, heaven forbid, about just the past, since ‘every day was another chance.’”
—Barnes and Noble Review
“This exquisite novel plumbs an interior landscape rarely explored in literature . . . It’s testament to O’Nan’s talent than Emily, Alone is a page-turner suffused with vibrancy, humor, even hope.”
“Utterly devastating, poignant, so subtle. It is unpardonable that O’Nan is not a household name.”
—Edward Champion via Twitter
“Emily Maxwell, in Stewart O’Nan’s terrif Emily, Alone, joins India Bridge & Olive Kitteridge as women characters whom you won’t soon forget.”
—Nancy Pearl via Twitter
“[A] bracingly unsentimental, ruefully humorous, and unsparingly candid novel about the emotional and physical travails of old age. . . . The closely observed Emily is a sort of contemporary Mrs. Bridge, and O’Nan’s depiction of her attempts to sustain optimism and energy during the late stage of her life achieves a rare resonance.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“O’Nan again proves himself to be the king of detail. What people eat, how they eat it, what they think and say in the midst of eating it—this novel represents an almost minute mapping of the lay of the domestic land as O’Nan the sociological cartographer views it.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“With sympathy and compassion, O’Nan spotlights the plight of aging baby boomers, further enriching our understanding of the human condition.”
“Another quietly poignant character study from O’Nan . . . Rueful and autumnal, but very moving.”
Stewart O’Nan is the author of fourteen novels, including The Odds; Emily, Alone; and Last Night at the Lobster, as well as several works of nonfiction, including, with Stephen King, the bestselling Faithful. He was born and raised in Pittsburgh, where he lives with his family.
ALSO BY STEWART O’NAN
Songs for the Missing
Last Night at the Lobster
The Good Wife
The Night Country
Wish You Were Here
A Prayer for the Dying
A World Away
The Speed Queen
The Names of the Dead
In the Walled City
Faithful (with Stephen King)
The Circus Fire
The Vietnam Reader (editor)
On Writers and Writing, by John Gardner (editor)
Table of Contents
Praise for Emily, Alone
About the Author
MYSTERIES OF THE BRAIN
THE VIEW FROM THE FIFTH FLOOR
CLOSE TO NORMAL
THE BELLE OF THE BALL
THE DAY OF REST
THE BUSIEST DAY OF THE YEAR
PRESS FOR ASSISTANCE
THE HOSTESS WITH THE MOSTEST
UNDER THE WEATHER
A BAD HABIT
EXPRESSIONS OF SYMPATHY
THE FLOWER SHOW
THE PROBLEM WITH GOOD FRIDAY
THE GROWN-UP TABLE
POWER OF ATTORNEY
THE CRUELEST MONTH
THE VIRTUAL TOUR
THE LESSER OF TWO EVILS
THE MYSTERY OF MARCIA COLE
BETTER OR WORSE?
THE START OF THE SEASON
HARD TO KILL
OLD HOME DAYS
EXIT, STAGE LEFT
For my mother,
who took me to the bookmobile
Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life—startling, unexpected, unknown?
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. Dr. Sayid was always saying she needed to eat more.
It wasn’t far—a few miles through East Liberty and Point Breeze and Regent Square on broad streets they knew like old friends—but the trip was a test of Emily’s nerves. Arlene’s eyes weren’t the best, and her attention to the outside world was directly affected by whatever conversation they were engaged in. When she concentrated on a thought, she drove more slowly, making them the object of honking, and once, recently, from a middle-aged woman who looked surprisingly like Emily’s daughter Margaret, the finger.
“Obviously I must have done something,” Arlene had said.
“Obviously,” Emily agreed, though she could have cited a whole list. It did no good to criticize Arlene after the fact, no matter how constructively. The best you could do was hold on and not gasp at the close calls.
In the beginning they’d taken turns, but, honestly, as atrocious as Arlene was, Emily trusted herself even less. Henry had always done the driving in the family. It was a point of pride with him. When he was dying, he insisted on driving to the hospital for his chemo himself. It was only on the way home, with Henry sick and silent beside her, bent over a plastic bowl in his lap, that Emily piloted his massive Olds down the corkscrewing ramps of the medical center’s parking garage, terrified she’d scrape the sides against the scarred concrete walls. For several years she used the old boat to do her solitary errands, never venturing outside of the triangle described by the bank, the library and the Giant Eagle, but after a run-in with a fire hydrant, followed quickly by another with a Duquesne Light truck, she admitted—bitterly, since it went against her innate thriftiness—that maybe taking taxis was the better part of valor. Now the Olds sat out back in the garage with her rusty golf clubs as if decommissioned, the windshield dusty, the tires soft. She wasn’t a fan of the bus, and Arlene had made a standing offer of her Taurus, itself a boxy if less grand antique. The joke among their circle was that she’d become Emily’s chauffeur, though, as that circle shrank, fewer and fewer people knew their history, to the point where, having the same last name, they were sometimes introduced by the well-meaning young, at a University Club function or after one of Donald Wilkins’s wonderful organ recitals at Calvary, as sisters, a notion Arlene though not Emily found wildly amusing.
Today, as always, Arlene was late. It was gray and raining, typical November weather for Pittsburgh, and Emily stood at the living room’s bay window, leaning over the low radiator and holding the sheer curtain aside. The storm window was spotted and dirty. A few weekends ago, her nextdoor neighbor Jim Cole had generously hung them, but he’d failed to clean them properly, and now there was nothing to be done until the spring. She would spend a morning tending to them herself, the way her mother had taught her, with vinegar and water, wiping them streak-free with newsprint, but that was months off.
Outside, the trees and hedges along Grafton Street were bare and black, and the low sky made it feel like late afternoon instead of morning. The Millers’ was still for sale. Their leaves hadn’t been picked up yet, and lay smothering the yard, a dark, sodden mass. She wondered who would be looking to buy this time of year. The last she’d heard, Kay Miller was in an assisted living place over in Aspinwall, but that had been in August. Emily thought she should visit her, though in truth it was the last thing she wanted to do.
When she thought of fashionable, flighty Kay Miller in a place like the one in Aspinwall, she couldn’t help but picture Louise Pickering’s final hospital room. The oatmeal bareness, the mechanical bed, the plastic water pitcher with its bent straw on the rollaway table. Consciously, she knew those places could be very nice, just as homey as your own bedroom, or close to it, but the vision of Louise persisted, and the idea that she was at an age where all was stillness and waiting—not true, yet impossible to dismiss.
Top Customer Reviews
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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
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.
Emily Alone is the sequel to O'Nan's earlier novel,Wish You Were Here: A Novel I can tell you that you do not need to read that book to enjoy this one - and indeed I have not. But I do intend to make up for that and read it since I enjoyed this one so much.
As this books begins, we meet Emily Maxwell, who is an elderly widow living by herself in a quiet Pittsburgh community. Her age is never mentioned but she seems to be somewhere in her mid to late 80's. She knows she is in the twilight of her life and it seems as if she is always going to memorials for friends who have passed away. Her best friend Louise had died the year earlier, and now Emily finds herself spending a lot of her time with her deceased husband's sister, Arlene.
At the start of the novel, Emily and Arlene go to a local buffet for a two-for-one breakfast when Arlene collapses and has to go to the hospital. Up to this point Emily has been very dependent on Arlene for transportation and company and she now has to adjust. That adjustment is in large part what this novel is about - in the sense that Emily now starts to rethink her life and become introspective about what the past has meant to her, and what the future has in store.
There is not a lot of action in this book. If this were made into a movie there would be no need for special effects or green screens. Instead this brilliant little novel takes us inside the mind of this old woman and we both empathize and understand what it's like to be old and what it's like when we see our best years behind us. The fact that this book about this woman was written by a fifty year old man is even more amazing.
Lest you think this book is depressing, it's not. It's just such a spot on description and observation about life itself. I once read a greeting card that said that "no one is 80 in their dreams", and there is a passage in this book that reminded me of that. It described Emily's loving movies, and how even when we're old we don't imagine ourselves as being the old characters but rather want to be the young ingenues or heroes. I think that's true for us all - no matter what age we are.
I have dog-earred pages many in this book because I thought they contained particularly clever and profound observations. . This truly is one of the novels that can transform the reader, and make us all understand how much we all have in common. I'm not sure I would've appreciated this book as much if I were very young, but I'd like to think it still would resonated with me.