Emily, Alone Review: BookPage


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.

More Reviews of Emily, Alone

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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.”


The Denver Post

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.


The Miami Herald

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.


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.


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.


More Reviews of Emily, Alone

Four more recent reviews of Emily, Alone.

Boston Globe

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.


The Star Tribune

Shouldering on

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.”


The Washington Post

‘Emily: Alone’: Stewart O’Nan writes on aging gracefully

“Emily, Alone” is a sequel to “Wish You Were Here” (2002), O’Nan’s long, multi-faceted story about a family’s last summer vacation in Chautauqua, N.Y. It’s tempting to assume that this new novel, at half the first one’s length and with its narrow, sclerotic plot, is just a death rattle from the original story, but in fact it’s better. Shorter, wittier, much more tightly focused, “Emily, Alone” makes the perfect demonstration of O’Nan’s humanizing vision. Yes, there’s always the danger that he’s writing what Frank Norris once disparaged as “the drama of the broken tea cup.” But what saves him is his profound respect for Emily, the hopes and fears that lie beyond her old-lady foibles and fussiness, which, even if you aren’t an old lady and never will be, turn out to be the same hopes and fears we all harbor alone.


Cleveland Plain-Dealer

Stewart O’Nan finds ‘Emily, Alone’ aging heroically

Reading “Emily, Alone” made me think of Charles Dickens. This is somewhat incongruous, because Stewart O’Nan’s novels are not crafted out of the complicated, multilayered plots that we associate with Dickens. But O’Nan does share a laserlike observational talent with the Victorian master — one that can shock the reader into a sense that the story is lifted out of one’s own family or even oneself.