Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan

A couple of years ago, I read a curious and interesting little novel by an author I had never heard of. When I met O’Nan at a conference and got a copy of his newest novel, I was eager to try him again. Emily, Alone is a quiet, earnest story of ordinary people going about their daily lives, trying to manage the vagaries of existence as senior citizens.

Emily Maxwell is a widow, and she lives alone with her aging dog, Rufus. Her children are grown with families of their own, and Emily lives for and from one visit to the next. Her best friend is her slightly crusty sister-in-law, Arlene. Together they lament the changes they face in growing old and share a routine of lunches, dinners at the club, and miscellaneous errands.

Set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the landscape O’Nan describes seems comfortably familiar. I grew up at the other end of the state and only made a couple of brief visits to the Steel City, but Emily’s experiences mirror many of my own.

One childhood memory I vividly recall matches O’Nan’s description precisely. Emily and Arlene are driving by the old Nabisco plant, which is being converted into condos. O’Nan writes, “The real shame was that, winter or summer, when the plant was running, as you drove by you could smell them baking, even with your windows closed. They made Ritz crackers, and the warm buttery scent surrounded the place like a cloud. … In the Spring, … you could stand with your lemonade and … see the steam rising from the factory and practically taste the air” (10). I remember my Dad would detour on a trip home just to drive past the Nabisco plant on Roosevelt Boulevard. I can still smell it.

Another memory of mine involves her son, Kenneth, who signs off each phone call to his mother with, “All righty.” Must be a Pennsylvania thing. Of course, every Sunday I lament the arrival of the Waco Trib. “Stripped of its advertising, the [Pittsburgh] Post-Gazette was criminally thin” (53). Emily also surveys the “obituaries, and is relieved to find no one she knew. She noted those close to her age and younger, but refused to brood on them. She didn’t want to be one of those old ladies obsessed with death, hearing it in every tick of the clock and creak of the floorboards” (53). My favorite line, however, is, “People should give gifts because it made them happy. There should be no obligation involved, no guilt” (129). Another Pennsylvania thing perhaps?

While this might seem a tad depressing, it is anything but. The novel floats on an undercurrent of humor. Emily is an interesting, bright woman with a strong will. She has her routines, and they keep her active. She worries about Arlene, her neighbors, her daughter Margaret, her son Kenneth, the grandchildren, loyal Rufus, of course, and her preparations for the inevitable. I won’t reveal the twist in the last chapter, but it has me thinking. A third novel could have a neat little opening to resolve this riddle so tiny it could easily be missed.

I learned this novel is actually a sequel to an earlier work, Wish You Were Here. I’ll be tracking that one down in the coming days! 5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/14/11

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