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.