Emily, Alone

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From the author of Last Night at the Lobster, a moving vision of love and family.

A sequel to the bestselling, much-beloved Wish You Were Here, Stewart O’Nan’s intimate new novel follows Emily Maxwell, a widow whose grown children have long moved away. She dreams of vists by her grandchildren while mourning the turnover of her quiet Pittsburgh neighborhood, but when her sole companion and sister-in-law Arlene faints at their favorite breakfast buffet, Emily’s days change. As she grapples with her new independence, she discovers a hidden strength and realizes that life always offers new possibilities. Like most older women, Emily is a familiar yet invisible figure, one rarely portrayed so honestly. Her mingled feelings-of pride and regret, joy and sorrow- are gracefully rendered in wholly unexpected ways. Once again making the ordinary and overlooked not merely visible but vital to understanding our own lives, Emily, Alone confirms O’Nan as an American master.

Reading Group Guide

  1. How do cars and driving become emblems of independence and control in Emily, Alone?
  2. How do holidays contribute to the structure and pacing of O’Nan’s novel?
  3. In the sense that she is the main character of the novel, Emily Maxwell is the heroine of Emily, Alone. In what other senses can she be described as heroic? Do you find her deficient as a hero in any sense?
  4. Emily’s dog Rufus is almost as significant as any of the human characters in the novel. What role does he play, and how would the artistry of the novel be different without him?
  5. Emily’s favorite classical music station supplies a kind of soundtrack to O’Nan’s novel. What function is served by the continual references to the music that Emily hears? What do her judgments regarding music say about her character and the cultural world in which she lives?
  6. In what ways does Emily’s strained relationship with her daughter Margaret appear to repeat Emily’s relationship with her own mother? How successful is Emily in her effort not to repeat her mother’s mistakes?
  7. How does Emily’s daughter Margaret’s history of alcohol abuse affect both their relationship and the way Emily now thinks about drinking?
  8. What role is played by religion in Emily, Alone?
  9. How did you respond to the information O’Nan gives the reader regarding Emily’s political opinions? Why does Emily feel so politically disaffected?
  10. Compare the visits of Emily’s two children and their families: Margaret at Christmas and Kenneth at Easter. Which is more satisfying for Emily, and why? What lies at the root of the discomforts that attend each gathering?
  11. Small mysteries occasionally appear at the periphery of Emily’s world: a neighbor standing outside naked in the middle of the night; a spray-painted number on her sidewalk. What do these seemingly small but peculiar occurrences add to the atmosphere of the novel?
  12. Imagine Emily as your mother-in-law. Would you find her efforts to relate to you and your children endearing or infuriating? How would you respond to her simultaneous desires to be loved and to exert influence?
  13. What do you think of Emily’s response to the professed lesbianism of her granddaughter Ella? Placed in Emily’s position, would you handle the situation differently? If so, how?
  14. Discuss Emily’s thoughts and feelings regarding death. What adjectives best describe her attitude? What does Emily, Alone as a whole have to teach us about the last years of life?

10 thoughts on “Emily, Alone

  1. Mr. O’Nan – THANK YOU for this novel set in Pittsburgh. I was born and raised in Western PA and graduated from Chatham College. I spent 4 wonderful college years prowling the streets of Oakland, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill and East Liberty. You have provided me with so many happy memories of that time with this novel.
    As a child, our biggest holiday treat was the car trip into downtown Pittsburgh to see the animated windows at Horne’s and to have lunch in the tea room there (dating myself now). And school field trips always included Phipps Conservatory in the Spring.
    The novel itself is very moving and thought-provoking, but the references to so much of my heritage makes it extra-special for me.
    Sincerely,
    Susan Willard

  2. I wish publishers would consider adding a soundtrack – especially when the characters of the novel are so wrapped up in their music – I would have loved to overheard what was being played throughout the book.

  3. J’aime beaucoup ce roman, dont je suis en train de lire la traduction. Chaque chapitre est un petit régal. L’histoire d’Emily nous renvoie à notre propre vieillesse et à notre mort. Merci, M. O’Nan !
    Catherine Delivré

  4. Dear Stewart O’Nan,

    it’s been a while that I’ve been living with the Langers in their beach house or with Emily and her family at Lake Chautauqua. Now yesterday evening I finished Emily Alone, deeply moved by this older woman mastering her life in a world that’s changing in a way she does not appreciate, yet copes with it. The way you dive into that female character is extraordinary and to me can only be called Flaubertesque, knowing of course that Emily is not Madame Bovary and would have never wanted to be Emma Bovary.

    Actually even I feel the same sometimes today as a husband and father of two kids (and I am your vintage!) with all that shallowness and that inability for empathy that I notice wherever I look. Collateral damages that come along with the hyper fast way of communicating and reading today.

    So, thanks for that great piece of American Literature! I’m looking forward to hearing or reading more about or from Emily and the Maxwells.

    With kind regards from Southern Germany

    Norbert Kraas

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