Henry, Himself on New York Times Editors’ Choice List!

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It’s May, after all, and in this part of the world the trees have started budding and the birds that aren’t extinct have started singing. What better time to read Ali Smith’s novel “Spring,” which balances its political anxieties with emotional complexity and a warmth appropriate to the season? Continuing with fiction, you might pick up Stewart O’Nan’s character study “Henry, Himself,” or settle in with Julie Orringer’s historical novel “The Flight Portfolio,” about Varian Fry’s exploits saving dissidents from the Nazis. Jennifer duBois is back, with a novel about a talk-show host who goes too far, and Laila Lalami sets her latest novel in the towns of the Mojave Desert, where a hit-and-run death ties together the stories of nine very different characters.

HENRY, HIMSELF, by Stewart O’Nan. (Viking, $27.) A novel that uses short vignettes to capture a year in the life of the Pittsburgh man whose shadow loomed over two of O’Nan’s earlier novels. Most of us know people like Henry from the outside; the gift of O’Nan’s fiction is to immerse us deeply in his essence. “This is a novel that charms not through the complexities of its plot but through its subtle revelations of character and the human condition,” Dominic Smith writes in his review.

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The New York Times Book Review: Stewart O’Nan Returns to the Fictional Maxwell Family

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NYT/Klaus Kremmerz

When we watch Henry Maxwell, an aging Pittsburgher, wind the clocks of his house forward on the spring eve of daylight saving time, we are witnessing a man at the cusp of a new century. It’s 1998 and Henry is 74. A retired Westinghouse engineer, he has been married to the same woman, Emily, for nearly 50 years. After puttering in his basement with a jigsaw, cutting pieces for a spice rack that will be installed at his summer cottage in Chautauqua, he begins to move through the house, ministering to the clocks. “He wound the Black Forest cuckoo clock in the breakfast nook, waking the bird, inserted the key in the face of the grandfather clock and twisted, making the chimes ring as he brought the minute hand full circle. … Henry fixed the clock radios in the children’s rooms and the banjo clock in the den before adding an hour to his father’s watch and setting it on his dresser.” He then turns to his wife, who is reading in bed, and proclaims, “We are officially in the future.”

But the future exists for Henry as if through a fogged pane of glass in Stewart O’Nan’s beautifully spare and poignant new novel, “Henry, Himself.”

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Emily, Alone Review: The New York Times (electronic format)

The New York Times Book Review’s review of Emily, Alone is now available on their website.

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.”

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More Emily, Alone Reviews

Huffington Post

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.

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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.

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