Emily, Alone Review: The Dallas Morning Post

from The Dallas Morning News:

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

By SHAWNA SEED, Special Contributor
Published 25 March 2011 05:38 PM

“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.

Emily and her family appeared in an earlier novel, Wish You Were Here, but it’s not necessary to read that book in order to be charmed by this one. She’s an irresistible character — funny, flawed and thoroughly unsentimental about her inevitable fate:

She was dying, yes, fine, they all were, by degrees. If Dr. Sayid expected her to be devastated by the idea, that only showed how young he was.

For all her fatalism, though, Emily’s life isn’t over yet, and one of the novel’s joys is in seeing her world expand.

In the book’s opening pages, Emily’s sister-in-law, Arlene, collapses at a buffet and ends up in the hospital. This is a frightening development for Emily, and inconvenient, too. Emily, who hasn’t driven in years, relies on Arlene for transportation.

Emily gets her mothballed Oldsmobile out of the garage and rediscovers something most people forget after the age of 17, the exhilarating freedom that driving brings.

But Emily’s world is contracting, too. Her Pittsburgh neighborhood is changing in ways she doesn’t like. Her dog is her most constant companion, and Emily’s palpable fear that he will die, leaving her alone, is heartbreaking.

Her friends are dying, too. She and Arlene have been to so many funerals that they’ve become connoisseurs. In a passage that perfectly demonstrates O’Nan’s subtle use of humor, they discuss funeral receptions.

“Remember Gene Hubbard’s?”

“I doubt it will be that lavish.”

“Whoever did his, that’s the kind of reception I want.”

“The cannoli.”

“The cannoli, the crab puffs, the little cheese-and-spinach thingies.”


“And no sandwiches. I don’t want people to have to make their own sandwiches.”

“It’s not a picnic,” Emily said, egging her on.

Perhaps Emily’s greatest sorrow is her strained relationship with her children and grandchildren. They’re irresponsible with money; they don’t call or visit often enough; they don’t write thank-you notes promptly. O’Nan is at his best teasing out the family relationships. Even though the book is told entirely from Emily’s point of view, the reader is able to discern that not all the fault lies with Emily’s relatives.

In different hands, this might have been a morose book, but it’s actually delightful. O’Nan’s ability to deliver such a flawless portrait of a woman 30 years his senior speaks to his gifts as a writer.

A reader does have a sense of foreboding — danger seems to lurk in every snowstorm, bout with the flu or trip down the stairs. It’s no literary device, though. It’s simply a fact of life at Emily’s age, something that she understands and, if not exactly embraces, accepts. Emily Maxwell is no sissy.

Shawna Seed is a writer in Silver Spring, Md.