Four Guys, One Book

1. A review of Emily, Alone by Three Guys One Book:

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.

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2. An in-depth conversation with Edward Champion (Bat Segundo Show):

I had interviewed Stewart O’Nan before in 2007 for The Bat Segundo Show. And after reading Emily, Alone, I had hoped to set up a second interview. Unfortunately, O’Nan’s hectic schedule of teaching and long driving to author events made things a bit difficult. And when I received an unexpected jury duty summons in the mail, I prepared for the distinct possibility that a few weeks of my life would be sacrificed to the courtroom.

We started volleying by email. And the two of us learned that we both had quite a lot to say about American fiction. Our conversation touched upon the influence of Richard Yates, what a writer can learn from John Gardner, avoiding parody and creating dimensional characters, and how one can protest marketplace realities while appealing to the reader. My many thanks to Stewart for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer my somewhat verbose concatenations.

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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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Emily, Alone Review: Fresh Air on NPR

The Joy Of The Mundane In ‘Emily, Alone’
by Maureen Corrigan

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.

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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.”

“Empanadas.”

“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.