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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”