Emily, Alone in Paperback

Selected by Indie Booksellers for the April 2011 Indie Next List

“In this novel – a sequel to Wish You Were Here – we follow Emily Maxwell, an aging widow who walks a fine line between loneliness and her newfound independence. O’Nan convincingly portrays the mind, heart, and memory of an elderly woman, evoking her solitude poignantly but without resorting to emotional manipulation or sentimentality. O’Nan is one of the most versatile storytellers, and this book further guarantees his place in the pantheon of contemporary American writers.”

— Emily Crowe, Odyssey Bookshop, South Hadley, MA

paperback pub date: December 27, 2011

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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?

A Trio of Emily Reviews

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, Alone Review: San Francisco Chronicle

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.


Emily, Alone Review: Los Angeles Times

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.