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Monday, September 5, 2011

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan

Supposedly, this book by Stewart O'Nan is a reprisal of an earlier novel of his (Wish You Were Here).  I didn't know this until I began writing this review.    However, this quiet novel, Emily, Alone is very good all by itself.

I also liked another novel by O'Nan; Last Night at the Lobster, which I read a couple of years ago, and it was a good introduction to his better writing, which is understated but elegant.  In these two books there are no car crashes, murders, or other shocking events.  Maybe there's a snowstorm here and there, but you know what I mean.  Both Emily and Lobster are sort of about the ordinary moments of life.  But enough about Lobster; we're here to talk about Emily.  Emily is a 78-year-old widow and this is about how she navigates through life as such.  Her husband Henry is 8 years gone, and her best friend more recently departed.  Her children do not live nearby.  The everyday challenges are sometimes troubling.  Like, how do you get a big old boat of a car through the steep streets of Pittsburgh, and then actually park it?   Luckily, Emily's sister in-law Arlene lives nearby and these two plucky women help each other through the sometimes-daunting days.  The irony of this is that they were never crazy about each other in their younger days.   What I love about Emily is her effort to keep going with dignity and pleasure, despite the hardships of age.  She works at it and organizes her days to stave off boredom and loneliness.  Her affairs are in order, down to the letter.  She does difficult crosswords, cares for her old dog Rufus and listens to classical music on the radio.  She goes to Eat'n Park for the breakfast buffet with Arlene when they have a two-for-one coupon.  They go to funerals and Emily feels her mortality every day.  She contemplates the past and hopes she never falls and breaks a hip.  She rues the lack of communication from her grown children, and the lack of thank-you cards from her grandchildren--she frets but keeps it mostly to herself.  She tries to hang on to the vestiges of courtesy that were so important in her youth.  In these quiet moments, she has grace.  I read this with interest because, after all, we're all getting older.  Emily gives us a little glimpse of what's coming, if we're lucky.  I was really impressed that a man could write so beautifully from the point of view of a woman.  Author Stewart O'Nan is an avid Red Sox fan, and even wrote a book about the 2004 season with his friend and fellow author, Stephen King.  You can find audio interviews online and on itunes.