Emily Maxwell is nearing the end of life. Her beloved husband Henry has preceded her in death; her children have moved away and begun families of their own. In her old Pittsburgh neighborhood, Emily is the last of a faded generation, her remaining friends as decrepit as herself. This may not sound like the premise for a dramatic and engaging novel, but read on. With Emily, Alone, Stewart O’Nan proves to be a master of wringing the profound out of the everyday. In her taken-for-granted-ness, Emily emerges as a powerful protagonist whose inner life is remarkably—and perhaps typically—intriguing.
Stewart O’Nan has written a score of award-winning novels, including A Prayer for the Dying, The Night Country, and The Good Wife, as well as several books of nonfiction, including the bestselling Faithful, which he co-wrote with Stephen King. Emily, Alone is the sequel to the bestselling Wish You Were Here, O’Nan’s introduction to the Maxwells, which focuses on the family one year after Henry’s death. Now it’s nearly ten years later, and the children have withdrawn, forced by day-to-day reality to attend to the intricacies of their own messy lives. Alone but for the family dog, the equally broke-down Rufus, Emily soldiers on, tending to the garden and replacing empty tissue boxes in a vain attempt to maintain her irretrievable household. Memories, writes O’Nan, “plagued her like migraines, left her helpless and dissatisfied, as if her life and the lives of all those she’d loved had come to nothing….”
Then one day, in line for the Eat ‘n Park two-for-one breakfast buffet, Emily’s sister-in-law, Arlene, collapses from a stroke, depriving the hodophobic Emily of, among other things, her primary mode of transportation. Arlene survives, but the event forces Emily to retake the wheel of Henry’s Oldsmobile land yacht—which she eventually replaces with a cobalt-blue Subaru Outback. It’s a game-changing event, as the newly mobile Emily begins to reclaim a measure of her long-dormant independence. She emerges not redeemed, but determined. Her future is no less sealed, she’s no less invisible, and her family and neighborhood are no less a source of irritation, but in her Subaru, Emily finds a world that, though certainly changed, retains a kernel of lost youth, lost loved ones, and the hopes of a distant past.
For readers with aging parents, Emily will seem familiar. For her, backyard picnics and neighborhood cocktail parties are all in the past. She’s often grumpy and sensitive. The wondrous appliances of the twenty-first century only annoy her. Worry and anticipation consume her days, as her diminishing circle of friends serve, alternately, as chauffeurs and subjects of pity. Emily’s children and grandchildren aren’t—could never be—attentive enough. “She thought of all the time they’d wasted, all the pointless battles they’d fought, and while she knew in her heart that she wanted more than anything for the two of them to be reconciled, finally, she couldn’t shake the idea that they’d both waited till the last minute, and now it was too late,” writes O’Nan.
O’Nan revels in the drabness of Emily’s daily existence; his gift is an ability to infuse the everyday trappings of life with meaning. But isn’t that how meaning emerges in life outside of novels? It’s the little things—for Emily, it’s her husband’s easy chair, the FOR SALE sign in a once-familiar neighbor’s yard, or the long-dormant American Tourister luggage—that trigger the most salient memories and feelings: “With an old dishcloth she wiped the handle free of cobwebs, then lifted the suitcase to test its weight—surprisingly light. She’d performed the same experiment last year, and the year before, the strength of her memories weakening her resolve, when, really, there was no compelling reason to hang on to them. Her days as a world traveler were over. That was fine.”
Through her minute obsessions and fussy observations, we come to share in Emily’s flaws and sympathize with her plight. For as the debris field of the past yields to the vanishing point of the future, it’s likely that we, too, will feel the sting of neighbors who ignore us, remote controls that won’t obey us, and children whose thank-you notes, as O’Nan writes, “were slapdash, as if [they’d] rushed through them just to be done.” Like Emily, we, too, may know how it feels to be abandoned by a world that we helped to create.
Stewart O’Nan will appear at the 2011 Southern Festival of Books, held October 14-16 in Nashville.