Literary Corner Cafe

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Book Review - Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan

Some other reviewers have said Stewart O’Nan’s lovely book, Emily, Alone was “too slow” or didn’t contain “enough plot” for them. I loved Emily, Alone precisely because it was so lovely and leisurely paced and didn’t contain a lot of plot twists and turns or overly dramatic situations.

Readers first met Emily Maxwell in 2002’s Wish You Were Here. In that book, which takes place at Emily’s Chautauqua lake house shortly after Emily’s husband, Henry has died, we also met Emily’s family, many of whom make appearances in Emily, Alone, though their lives have moved on, sometimes in directions they didn’t expect during that final summer together at Lake Chautauqua.

In Emily, Alone, Emily, who “never wanted to be eighty…[and] never wanted to outlive Henry,” finds herself, though relatively healthy and financially secure, eighty and without her beloved Henry, though she does still have Rufus, her elderly dog by her side. She and Rufus rattle around Emily’s Pittsburgh home, “her life no longer an urgent or necessary business,” doing crossword puzzles, listening to classical music on WQED FM, reading the classics of English literature, like Middlemarch, cleaning in anticipation of the cleaning lady’s arrival, scanning the obituaries for familiar names, and noting “the usual troop of jays and nuthatches and titmice in her bird journal.” What Emily loves most, though, is planning for the yearly visits of her children, Margaret and Kenneth, and visiting with her four grandchildren. It’s with Margaret and Kenneth that Emily must tread most carefully, weighing her “Great Depression” values over her children’s outspokenness and self-centeredness of the ‘60s. Margaret and Kenneth, after all, wield the ultimate weapon: access to those four beloved grandchildren, and neither son nor daughter will hesitate in using that weapon, even against his or her own mother.

Emily’s life might seem, at first glance, to be both peaceful and boring. In reality, it’s neither. The Maxwell family has its tensions, and every time Margaret and Kenneth visit Emily, those tensions, though muted, eventually surface. Emily is aghast when she realizes that Margaret has inherited Emily’s own short temper. In fact, the realization that Margaret, who is now divorced and sober after some time spent in rehab, is as volatile as Emily used to be causes Emily to wish “she could go back and apologize to those closest to her…how did her mother and father ever put up with her?”

Despite problems with her children, the fact that Henry is now gone, and despite that fact that more and more of Emily’s friends are dying, Emily considers herself a lucky woman. She still has Rufus, who she treasures, she has her grandchildren, and she appreciates the fact that at eighty, she’s blessed with an unchanging routine.

Writers are cautioned to “start your story on a day that’s different,” and for the most part, O’Nan does. Every Tuesday, Emily Maxwell is in the habit of enjoying a two-for-one breakfast with her sister-in-law, Arlene, at a nearby suburb’s Eat ‘n’ Park. (The Sunday paper had kindly provided coupons.) Because Henry would never let Emily drive, she’s come to rely on Arlene to drive the two of them to the restaurant and then home again, though Arlene, with her poor eyesight and disregard for traffic laws wouldn’t be anyone else’s first choice behind the wheel. But, Emily thinks, she, herself, would be no better: “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.”

The “difference” in this day begins when Arlene, her plate piled high with Eat ‘n’ Park morsels, begins to speak, then mysteriously topples over. EMTs are called, of course, and as Arlene is taken to the hospital in an emergency vehicle, Emily is forced to follow in Arlene’s car.

If Arlene provided the first surprise of Emily’s day, it’s Emily, herself, who provides the next. Following the EMTs to the hospital in Arlene’s car, Emily discovers that “she was much less fearful behind the wheel than riding beside Arlene.” To my way of thinking, that shouldn’t have come as such a big surprise.

After learning that Arlene will recover, (not really a spoiler), Emily goes home and backs Henry’s 1982 Oldsmobile out of the garage. The lady’s decided that she’s going to get behind the wheel again, and it’s no spoiler to tell you that this is a decision Emily doesn’t regret. She even trades in Henry’s 1982 Oldsmobile for something more her speed, a bright blue (Emily worries that the car may be too “flashy”) Subaru Outback. Driving, Emily finds, made her feel “surprisingly alive, part of something larger again.” And when Arlene is released from the hospital, it’s Emily who takes charge.

O’Nan specializes in portraying ordinary people, who live ordinary lives. There’s nothing special about Emily Maxwell, other than the fact that she is Emily Maxwell. You probably know a person just like her. I know I do. Like this book or not, Emily Maxwell is a truly authentic character. So many authors write about the young, but I tend to shy away from books described as “coming-of-age” stories. The young, for me, at least, with some exceptions, of course, just aren’t that interesting. They haven’t lived long enough. They haven’t accrued enough history to be interesting. Other authors portray older persons as caricatures, which is just as bad as not portraying them at all. O’Nan, however, is different. His portrayal of Emily is quiet, true, but it’s also sensitive and beautifully nuanced, and to O’Nan’s great credit, he eschews sentimentality. For example, he resists the urge to allow Emily to find true love again, something I greatly appreciated.

O’Nan tells the story of Emily Maxwell is short, crisp, named chapters that are understated and filled with detail, and that take the reader through Emily’s life for the better part of a year. I’m not a fan of “short, crisp” chapters myself, but that’s just a personal “not my cup of tea” kind of thing. They did work well in this book, and there’s certainly nothing at all wrong with them.

This book has been criticized by some as not containing enough plot, and to be sure, Emily, Alone isn’t a plot driven novel. As a character study, however, its scenes present an exquisite little miniature of the everyday joys and sorrows of someone who is close to the end of a long life, but still makes the most of every day. The prose is lean and unadorned, and is characterized by a dark wit that permeates the entire novel.

I love the wealth of Pittsburgh detail that fills this novel. For me, it really made the novel come alive, not that I’m terribly familiar with Pittsburgh, though after reading this book I sometimes feel that I am. I felt I knew the Lake Chautauqua area when reading the darker Wish You Were Here, and to be honest, I did prefer the earlier book, though Emily, Alone is a tighter, more focused work. Maybe that was my problem. I like longer books, with many characters and several subplots as opposed to slim novels that focus on one character only.

Writer Frank Norris dismissed realism as “the drama of a broken teacup” in a reaction to the “parlor dramas” of Henry James, and gravitated toward the much harsher naturalism. O’Nan is definitely writing “the drama of a broken teacup” in Emily, Alone, but Emily is such a well drawn and beautifully nuanced character that most readers, I think, won’t mind that the harsher realities of life have been dealt with outside the pages of this book. Emily is just “too real” to dismiss, and in the end, the reader, like O’Nan, comes to respect this graceful woman who makes a life of “simply carrying on.”


Recommended: To those who like character studies as opposed to plot driven novels. This book contains very little plot, but the beautiful portrait of Emily Maxwell makes her a character well worth knowing.

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