Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan


I slipped into Emily Maxwells' world seamlessly, into her home on a quiet street in Pittsburgh, and into her mind where past and present circle and meander, intertwining effortlessly with the classical music she often listens to in solitude. Emily Alone (Viking, 2011) by Stewart O'Nan is not for everybody. I am sure many readers would find the bulk of this novel rather mundane. Other readers will savor every small epiphany in Emily's often orderly days. I know I did.

Emily is a widow of a certain age. She rarely sees her adult children or grandchildren, who live in faraway cities. Her most constant companion is her sister-in-law Arlene, who also lives alone nearby. Together, with one or the other of them cautiously driving, they adventure out to breakfast buffets, funerals, art and garden shows. Intimations of mortality abound, not only when Arlene enters the hospital after a fainting episode, but also when Emily's aging dog Rufus rapidly starts gaining weight. Rufus also ably serves as Emily's familiar; some of my favorite passages involved her comments and near-conversations with the dog.

O'Nan does a wonderful job of portraying Emily's mindset via a third person point of view. I had been reading a few too many novels with multiple points of view, and it was such a welcome change to thoroughly settle down with just one character. To some extent, I identified with her thought processes. She second guesses herself, analyzes things, judges others and herself, and beats herself up for much of it, all very believably. Driving to her old hometown of Kersey, she ruminates on how badly she had needed to distance herself from the place and who she had been there, "where everyone knew her as a teacher's pet and a crybaby." She used to throw tantrums and could not get along with her mother. But now she demonstrates greater wisdom, coming "to think of everyone close to her with a helpless tenderness, accepting that life was hard and people did their best."

Yes, this book blew me away with its quiet accretion of wisdom and wonder. I had only ever read one other book by O'Nan, Last Night at the Lobster (Viking, 2007), which did not really rock my world. Now I have an earlier book about Emily Maxwell and her family to look forward to, Wish You Were Here (Grove Press, 2002). Although it might have been nice to have read it first, I don't think it much matters. Spending more time with Emily Maxwell, alone or otherwise, sounds just heavenly.

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