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?
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.
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.