Reviews: Emily, Alone

This post will be updated with reviews as they come in.

The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

She’s not about to go gentle into any dark night

Emily, Alone is one of those rare books in which nothing particular happens and yet just about everything seems to be going on. Stewart O’Nan’s 12th novel is a sequel of sorts to his well-regarded Wish You Were Here (2002), which dealt with the white, middle-class Maxwell clan as it tried to come to terms with the recent death of their patriarch, Henry. A decade later, Henry’s widow Emily soldiers on, surviving in quiet suburban solitude in the too-big Pittsburgh home she refuses to vacate. Her life is a progression of difficult negotiations with both the past and an outside world which is leaving her further and further behind. Should she sell Henry’s monstrous old Oldsmobile for a more practical car? What is to be done about her sister-in-law Arlene’s smoking, which is clearly killing the woman? Should she put down the family dog as he grows increasingly decrepit?


Macleans (Canada)

This exquisite novel plumbs an interior landscape rarely explored in literature—that of a sharp 80-year-old American woman watching the contours of her quiet life grow ever narrower. Emily Maxwell, introduced in O’Nan’s Wish You Were Here (2003), is a compellingly old-fashioned character—wry, unsentimental, resourceful, self-critical and stalwart, even as her life fills with loss. Her beloved husband and best friend are dead, her family is far-flung, and her once-tight circle of country-club friends diminishes by the week. The brutalities of old age are upon her: she’s socially invisible, her body is weakening, she’s nervous in her once-genteel Pittsburgh neighbourhood.


Barnes & Noble

The elderly widow, soldiering on alone after her husband’s death, long after her children have grown and moved away, may not be the stuff of high drama, but it contains a mother lode (so to speak) of rich material. And why not? Who better to delve into issues of mortality and values than those nearing the end who, ironically, have plenty of time on their hands for deep reflection? These women maintain rich inner lives even as their worlds contract.

Often, as in Clyde Edgerton’s hilarious Walking Across Egypt (1987) — a personal favorite — plots turn on an unexpected connection between a dowager and a troubled youngster. But in Stewart O’Nan’s Emily, Alone, a welcome follow-up to his 2002 novel, Wish You Were Here, the emphasis, as the title suggests, is Emily, toute seule, determined to uphold standards and maintain discipline even as her world erodes.


Emily Maxwell, the widow at the center of Stewart O’Nan’s engaging new novel, “Emily, Alone,” is probably no more self-absorbed than the rest of us. It’s just that O’Nan takes such painstaking care portraying the Pittsburgh matriarch amid all her material and emotional minutiae, readers may believe that they are in the presence of a world-class neurotic.

It’s true, Emily frets about everything, from the tardiness of her grandchildren’s thank-you notes to the life expectancy of the cosmos she plants at her husband’s grave. She might be the first to tell you that she has too much time on her hands, and yet her primary occupation – taking a final measure of the meaning of her life and the lives of those dearest to her – emerges as a noble enterprise.

Thankfully, a keen intelligence and healthy sense of the absurd reside at the center of Emily’s self-absorption. Although bruised here and there by an angst arising from the loneliness of aging alone, this is a comic novel with numerous laugh-out-loud passages.


Los Angeles Times

The author creates an elderly woman who may not have a dramatic life but is three dimensional and interesting to follow around.

Stewart O’Nan’s books are not about poverty, life’s crises, gross injustice or family drama; in fact, there’s very little drama in his works. He has become a spokesperson — in modern fiction — for the regular person, the working person, and now, the elderly. One of the most beautiful, unforgettable scenes in any novel I’ve ever read occurs in “Last Night at the Lobster,” in which O’Nan describes the manager of a mall-style restaurant switching on the lights at the start of a new day, so full of purpose and hopefulness. This is a writer who illuminates moments like that one, moments you never even noticed.


Three Guys One Book

JE: It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Stewart O’Nan. His winning combination of pathos, intelligence, curiosity and heroic range, make the dude a national treasure. Like Steinbeck (and Dickens and Twain), O’Nan writes about “the little people.” He’s a bard for the blue collar, reporting on the quiet and sometimes desperate lives of decent folks who may not be making headlines with their heroism, but in whom we recognize ourselves with a clarity that is all too rare in modern literature.



The latest novel by Stewart O’Nan (Speed Queen) is an ideal book for a rainy, tea-sipping afternoon. There’s a calm, enveloping tone to the story that belies its unflinching exploration of a woman’s chronically discontented heart. Readers of O’Nan’s earlier novel Wish You Were Here will recognize the Emily of the title as Emily Maxwell, now 80 and widowed and living alone with her dog, Rufus, in a classy residential neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Her husband died years ago, and her children have moved to other parts of the country with their own families. She has remained close to her late husband’s sister, Arlene, and the two of them make weekly forays in Arlene’s car to a breakfast buffet that offers a two-for-one deal on Tuesdays.   This weekly brunch trip is both the high and the low point of Emily’s week. And it’s on one of these outings that we first catch a glimmer of Emily’s odd blend of affection, dependence and resentment toward those she’s closest to, a complicated attitude she holds without seeming to be aware of it herself. When Arlene collapses in a fainting spell at the buffet, Emily is suddenly forced into an independence she’d forgotten she could manage. Taking care of her sister-in-law and herself, and doing a good job of it, gives her a new confidence as she surveys her life and starts the hard work of reconciling herself to its approaching end.   Not much actually happens in the story; its chief pleasure comes from unraveling this little old lady’s messy tangle of emotions. O’Nan never retreats from Emily’s less flattering qualities: she means well, but she can be hypercritical, tight with money, and hung up on outmoded courtesies, and she’s consistently surprised when others fail to take her own bleak view of things. It’s refreshing to see someone who could’ve been a stock character drawn so fully. In fact all the women in the book are well-realized; the men are peripheral, opaque or simply beside the point. That you never really miss them is a testament to Emily’s strength and complexity. She holds her own.

Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Stewart O’Nan’s ‘Emily, Alone’ returns to Maxwell clan, Pittsburgh

“Emily, Alone” is Stewart O”Nan’s first novel as a Pittsburgh resident. Sure, the Point Breeze native has previously published 12 books, including short-story collections and novels such as “Snow Angels” and “A Prayer for the Dying.”

But “Emily, Alone” is the first book O’Nan has published since he moved to Regent Square from Connecticut two years ago. So it’s fitting the book features the city, especially the neighborhoods of Highland Park and Regent Square.

“I’ve always wanted to write about Pittsburgh more,” he says. “I’ve written stories, and there was ‘Everyday People’ (his 1998 novel set in East Liberty), but I wanted to do a little bit more with this and take on territory that is totally foreign to me, which is old age and being an older woman. So I thought it would be good to be grounded in something I know, which is Pittsburgh.”


The Denver Post

O’Nan brings it all together in “Emily, Alone”

Stewart O’Nan is a master of introspection. And while “Emily, Alone” is a chapter added to 2002’s “Wish You Were Here,” a reader need not be familiar with the earlier novel to be enriched by this one.

The Emily of the title is the matriarch introduced in the earlier novel who, at that point, was wrapping up affairs after her husband’s death. “Emily, Alone” takes place several years later, as she has settled into widowhood. Her children, absorbed by their challenges, don’t call or visit as often as she’d like. Most of her time is spent by herself. When she gets out, it is usually in the company of her longtime compatriot, Arlene. She has lived past most of her friends.


The Miami Herald

Emily copes with disappointment, old age

Next to nothing happens in Stewart O’Nan’s Emily, Alone. The 80-year-old title character goes out for breakfast once a week with her elderly sister-in-law. She works at crossword puzzles; tends to her beloved old dog, Rufus; reads and listens to classical music on the radio. Oh, and she buys a car. That’s about all. But this is an O’Nan novel, and it’s as riveting as a fast-paced thriller, albeit one that delves into the life and psyche of an elderly woman.


The New York Times Book Review

Stewart O’Nan Tells a Widow’s Tale

Who is Stewart O’Nan? Over the past 17 years, he’s written 11 novels — we’ll turn to the 12th in a moment — as remarkable for their precise, economical language and depth of characterization as for the fact that each is as different from its predecessor, in style, tone and narrative approach, as if it had come from a different author.

What unites these disparate books are their themes — the fragmented and solitary nature of contemporary American life, the degradation of Rust Belt cities and towns, the slippery line between the working and middle class — and a distinct ability to turn toward the dark places from which other writers might avert their gaze. This is, perhaps, a fancy way of saying that O’Nan often veers into the bloody territory traditionally ascribed to genre fiction (thrillers, mysteries, horror, even procedurals), revolving around murders, abductions, mysterious plagues or gruesome accidental deaths, with forays into the supernatural, as in “The Night Country,” narrated by three teenagers killed in a car crash. This is a writer who, like Dickens, you can count on to kill off the little girl — a writer who looks at cars warming in suburban driveways and sees “enough white smoke for a million suicides.”


Huffington Post

Surrounded by Life

Emily, Alone, by Stewart O’Nan, is a book of quiet yet stunning beauty; steady and trim from the outside, like its protagonist, and, just like her, stirring inside with deep longings, intense observations, and a strong attachment to living. Emily is of the age she claims she never wanted to reach, the very last of her neighborhood’s country club gang of mothers, and living far from her children and grandchildren, who call frequently but not enough, and visit even less often. Emily is tethered to life seemingly only through ties to her sister-in-law Arlene, her own aging dog, and her deep love for her adopted hometown of Pittsburgh. But O’Nan will surprise us, uncovering within his character a capacity for finding so much still to live for — so many ties holding her to people and to places — and providing a reminder to us all of life’s capacity to excite and invigorate, at any age.


The Caregiver’s Bookshelf (New York Times Blog)

How She Carries On

So often, novels and movies with elderly protagonists take pains to depict them in a state of rebellion. They’re breaking out of an assisted living facility. They’re skydiving and climbing the pyramids, pursuing their bucket lists. They’re heading into space for one last, crucial mission.

They’re behaving, in other words, as if they weren’t old. The preferred word for this state, I believe, is “feisty.”

I cherish the newly published novel “Emily, Alone,” by Stewart O’Nan, because the main character doesn’t deny or resist her age.


NPR (listen [mp3])

The Joy Of The Mundane In ‘Emily, Alone’

It takes a deft hand to do justice to the ordinary. Most novelists don’t even bother to try, which is why most novels are about a rip in the fabric of the routine. It’s tough to find fiction ambitious enough to tackle the story of a run-of-the-mill job, a hum-drum family; but, if the mundane matters to you, then Stewart O’Nan is your man.

The Dallas Morning News

Book review: ‘Emily, Alone,’ by Stewart O’Nan

“Old age is not for sissies,” goes the phrase variously attributed to Bette Davis or Art Linkletter and repeated by countless grandmothers.

Old age hasn’t been much of a place for novelists, either, at least not contemporary ones. That’s part of what makes Stewart O’Nan’s new novel, Emily, Alone, so interesting. His heroine, an 80-year-old widow named Emily Maxwell, is a familiar character — she could be your grandmother or mother or aunt. Her routine is ordinary and her activities mostly mundane: flower shows, funerals and family dinners. But O’Nan’s book, with great poignancy and humor, offers a rare glimpse into the life of a woman whose life is nearing an end.


Boston Globe

Drama is in the details

A gentle portrait of a woman in her twilight years — her small everyday victories and setbacks — turns an ordinary life into the extraordinary

What a relief: No vampires, zombies, fashionistas, shopaholics; no child abuse, alternate universes, cyber anything; and no violent crime (only a scratched car door) mark Stewart O’Nan’s lovely, lyrical, leisurely paced portrait of 80-year-old Emily Maxwell. A sequel to O’Nan’s “Wish You Were Here’’ (in which the Maxwell family spends one last week at their soon-to-be-sold summer house), this poignant novel — his 13th — stands on its own. Though, at first, Emily’s world seems measured out in coffee spoons, the quotidian details supply their own drama and beauty, underscoring the small triumphs and losses of daily life: a meal with a discount coupon, a garden, the companionship of an old dog, the comfort of music, a Mother’s Day phone call, a parking space, a cold caught from a grandchild, the noisy construction across the street, a neighbor naked in the moonlight, a friend’s new eyeglasses.


The Star Tribune

Shouldering on

A woman faces her twilight years alone, but with interest and curiosity.

That’s the book’s goal: To show life’s persistence without the grim fatalism or spry attitude that define so many fictional portraits of the aged. O’Nan’s episodic chapters inhabit Emily’s thoughts on a host of quotidian things: thank-you notes, housekeeping, driving, watching television, listening to the radio. But O’Nan gives each small experience an emotional heft, and he’s supremely skilled at revealing Emily’s emotional investment in every small change in her life. When her dog has to make a trip to the vet, it’s enormous, and when she catches a cold it’s as much opportunity as illness — a chance to interact with others anew. “Being sick,” O’Nan points out, “was news.”


The Washington Post

‘Emily: Alone’: Stewart O’Nan writes on aging gracefully

“Emily, Alone” is a sequel to “Wish You Were Here” (2002), O’Nan’s long, multi-faceted story about a family’s last summer vacation in Chautauqua, N.Y. It’s tempting to assume that this new novel, at half the first one’s length and with its narrow, sclerotic plot, is just a death rattle from the original story, but in fact it’s better. Shorter, wittier, much more tightly focused, “Emily, Alone” makes the perfect demonstration of O’Nan’s humanizing vision. Yes, there’s always the danger that he’s writing what Frank Norris once disparaged as “the drama of the broken tea cup.” But what saves him is his profound respect for Emily, the hopes and fears that lie beyond her old-lady foibles and fussiness, which, even if you aren’t an old lady and never will be, turn out to be the same hopes and fears we all harbor alone.


Cleveland Plain-Dealer

Stewart O’Nan finds ‘Emily, Alone’ aging heroically

Reading “Emily, Alone” made me think of Charles Dickens. This is somewhat incongruous, because Stewart O’Nan’s novels are not crafted out of the complicated, multilayered plots that we associate with Dickens. But O’Nan does share a laserlike observational talent with the Victorian master — one that can shock the reader into a sense that the story is lifted out of one’s own family or even oneself.


Entertainment Weekly

On the surface, one wouldn’t call Stewart O’Nan’s latest novel, Emily, Alone, an obvious pageturner. Its heroine is the rather rigid Emily, 80-year-old widowed matriarch of the Maxwell clan that O’Nan explored in his 2002 domestic drama Wish You Were Here, and the narrative largely consists of her daily routine piddling away the hours in her Pittsburgh home. Yet there’s so much yearning in Emily — to like herself more, to forgive her own failings and those of her grown children and grandchildren, to wring something meaningful out of her final years. And O’Nan writes with such specificity and humor. On yet another friend’s memorial service: ”The room was windowless, the air warm and stagnant, and as Jamie read a long, gently comic remembrance of her mother’s love of weddings, Emily thought that she’d been to so many of these that she’d become a critic.”

The novel kicks off at the Eat ‘n Park’s two-for-one breakfast buffet, a weekly tradition for Emily and her always game sister-in-law Arlene. (May we all have an Arlene in our lives when we are old and alone.) Arlene suffers a stroke, whacking her forehead on the salad bar’s sneeze glass. It’s a terrifyingly vivid scene, one that nudges Emily out of her comfort zone. And so, in the period spanning Thanksgiving to her summer family holiday, Emily stretches for a kind of rediscovery. Throughout she is lovable and heartbreaking and real. When this novel ends, in a moment of great hope and vigor, you’ll find yourself missing her terribly.

Publishers Weekly
(starred review)

O’Nan checks back in with the Maxwell family from Wish You Were Here in this bracingly unsentimental, ruefully humorous, and unsparingly candid novel about the emotional and physical travails of old age. At 80, widow Emily Maxwell has become dependent on her equally aged sister-in-law, Arlene, to chauffeur them to the rounds of Pittsburgh’s country club dinners, flower shows, museums, and increasingly frequent funerals. After Arlene has a stroke, Emily is forced into reclaiming her independence, but she remains clear-eyed about her diminishing future and what she can expect of her two adult children and four grandchildren, giving O’Nan the opportunity and space to expertly play out the misunderstandings, disagreements, and resentments among parents and their grown children. Emily fears saying the wrong things (yet often does) and frets about her grandchildren, who are uninterested in family traditions and lax with thank-you notes. The unhurried plot follows Emily from a lonely Thanksgiving with Arlene to a Christmas visit from her daughter and two grandchildren, Easter with her son and his children, and the eve of her summer departure to Chautauqua. During this time, friends and acquaintances die, Emily observes the deterioration of the neighborhoods she’s known for decades, and she continues to converse with her old dog, Rufus. Efficient, practical, stubborn, frugal, and a lover of crosswords, church services, and baroque music, the closely observed Emily is a sort of contemporary Mrs. Bridge, and O’Nan’s depiction of her attempts to sustain optimism and energy during the late stage of her life achieves a rare resonance. (Mar.)

Kirkus Reviews

Another quietly poignant character study from O’Nan (Songs for the Missing, 2008, etc.), this one tracing the daily routines and pensive inner life of an elderly widow.

Emily Maxwell, newly bereaved in Wish You Were Here (2002), is now more or less accustomed to life without her beloved husband Henry. His death and the more recent loss of her best friend Louise are still painful, but she’s adjusted. She has her aging dog Rufus for company; she’s a regular churchgoer; she reads and listens to classical music; every Tuesday she drives with her sister-in-law Arlene from their separate homes in Pittsburgh to the suburban Eat ‘n Park’s two-for-one breakfast buffet. Arlene’s collapse at the restaurant dramatically closes the first chapter, but otherwise O’Nan’s low-key narrative bears out Emily’s uneasy sense that “she was at an age where all was stillness and waiting.” Holiday visits from her children underscore fraught family relations. Daughter Margaret, a recovering alcoholic in shaky economic circumstances, has always annoyed Emily with her messy feelings and disorganized ways. Son Kenneth is dutiful but reserved; Emily and his wife Lisa dislike each other. Her four grandchildren are in college or beginning careers; “it was hard to follow their lives from a distance.” Emily is well aware that she too distanced herself from her family when she married the more privileged Henry, and her unsentimental musings over past and present relationships form the novel’s emotional core as nine months unfold from November 2007 to the following July. O’Nan gently depicts Emily—inclined to be as critical of herself as of those who don’t meet her exacting, old-fashioned standards—trying to judge less and accept more. She doesn’t change so much as let go, learning that an existence diminished by age and loss is nonetheless precious for the pleasures that remain: gardening in the spring, going through childhood mementoes, simply knowing that she has lived, loved and endured.

Rueful and autumnal, but very moving.

(starred review)

Upon completion of his psychologically rigorous, emotionally raw, yet deceptively buoyant giant of a domestic drama, Wish You Were Here (2002), O’Nan obviously had sufficient material—and heart—left over to once again visit the Maxwell family of Pittsburgh a few years on in time. In the previous novel, the matriarch, Emily, has just lost her husband, and she, her sister-in-law, her two grown children, and their children gather for the last time at the family summer home in Chautauqua, New York. Now, in this sequel, we follow Emily through her domestic pleasures, concerns, and crises as the calendar year moves from holiday to holiday, with Emily experiencing increased infirmity while also seeing the physical decline of her sister-in-law and even her beloved spaniel. Connection to her children remains tricky as they approach middle age, and establishing communication with her grandchildren seems beyond her ability, for they live in a young society whose tenets are unfamiliar to her. Emily’s parental disappointment arises from her abiding sentiment that what one does for one’s children is endless and thankless. O’Nan again proves himself to be the king of detail. What people eat, how they eat it, what they think and say in the midst of eating it—this novel represents the almost minute mapping of the lay of the domestic land as O’Nan the sociological cartographer views it.

HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: An author tour and radio-publicity campaign will follow O’Nan’s recent appearance as a panelist at the ALA/ERT Booklist Author Forum at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting.

— Brad Hooper

Library Journal

Award winner O’Nan returns to the Maxwell family in this sequel to Wish You Were Here. Emily Maxwell, widowed and head of a flawed family beset with disappointments, confronts her own mortality when her sister-in-law Arlene suffers a fainting spell. The doctors can’t diagnose the cause, but it is indicative of what’s happening to their friends, most in poor health and limited to walkers or confined to wheelchairs. Upon hearing of the death of a friend, Emily asks herself whether she is mourning the passing of a friend or of happier times when they were busy, young, and alive. Gone are the genteel traditions that kept the older generation running smoothly, traditions lacking in her own grown children, Kenneth and Margaret. Margaret, a recovering alcoholic, is divorced and has two children to raise; her finances are a disaster; and she has no job. Kenneth’s wife’s hostility to Emily causes tension at family gatherings. Emily copes by keeping to her routines, accompanied by her aging dog, Rufus, knowing that she can do only so much to keep the inevitable changes at bay. VERDICT With sympathy and compassion, O’Nan spotlights the plight of aging baby boomers, further enriching our understanding of the human condition. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/10.]—Donna Bettencourt, Mesa Cty. P.L., Grand Junction, CO

One thought on “Reviews: Emily, Alone

  1. Don’t know if O’Nan will ever see this but he has very accurately portrayed the life of an elderly woman alone after decades of marriage. Emily could have been my mother – similar experiences plus that wonderful bond/conflict that happens with single/widowed elderly women. My mother had three women friends – all widows – who unconsciously became their own support system and community. They went to the same senior discount lunches as his characters, complained about each other as his characters did, and inevitably followed each other to their graves. All were close to 90 at death. My mother outlived all at 94 but said the worse thing was “outliving her friends”. Congratulations, Mr O’Nan,on a great book. You must know a woman similar to Emily because it is 100% accurate. Thanks for a good read.

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