EMILY, ALONE by Stewart O’Nan

Book Quote:

“Why does she always want more, when this was all there was? ‘I’m sorry, Emmy,’ her mother would say, with her teacher’s maddening patience, ‘but that’s not how the world works.’ ”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (MAR 24, 2011)

Stewart O’Nan may simply be genetically incapable of writing a bad book. His characters are written with precision, intelligence and verisimilitude; they’re so luminously alive that a reader can accurately guess about what they’re eating for dinner or what brand toothpaste they use.

In Emily, Alone, Mr. O’Nan revisits Emily, the Maxell family matriarch from a prior book, Wish You Were Alone. Anyone who is seeking an action-based book or “a story arc” (as taught in college writing classes) will be sorely disappointed. But for those readers who are intrigued by a near-perfect portrait of a winningly flawed elderly woman who is still alive with anxieties, hopes, and frustrations, this is an unsparingly candid and beautifully rendered novel.

Emily Maxwell is part of a gentle but dying breed, a representative of a generation that is anchored to faith, friends and family. She mourns the civilities that are gradually going the way of the dinosaur – thank you notes, Mother’s Day remembrances, and the kindness of strangers. Her two adult children have turned out imperfect – a recovering alcoholic daughter and an eager-to-please son who often acquiesces to an uncaring daughter-in-law.

With her old cadre of friends dwindling and her children caught up in their own lives, Emily fills her days with two-for-one buffet breakfasts with her sister-in-law Arlene, classical music, and her daily routine with her obstreperous dog Rufus, who is instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent life with an aging, sometimes unruly, always goofy and loving animal.

Whether she’s caring for and about her Arlene, trying to keep up with family holiday traditions, keeping tabs on a house sale nearby, and trying to do the right thing in educating her children about executor’s duties, Emily struggles to find purpose. She recognizes that time is not on her side any longer and reflects, “The past was the past. Better to work on the present instead of wallowing, and yet the one comforting thought was also the most infuriating. Time, which had her on the rack, would just as effortlessly rescue her. This funk was temporary. Tomorrow she would be fine.”

The thing is, we all know Emily. She is our grandmother, our mother, our piano teacher, our neighbor. She is the woman who gets up each day and attends the breakfast buffet or participates in a church auction, or waits eagerly for the mail carrier or feels perplexed about preening teenagers who blast their stereo too loud. She is the one who wonders whether she should have tried a little harder with her kids, even though “she’d tried beyond the point where others might have reasonably given up.” She is the woman who senses that life is waning but still intends to hang on as long as possible and go for the gusto.

The fact that Stewart O’Nan can take an “invisible woman” – someone we nod to pleasantly and hope she won’t engage us in conversation too long – and explore her interior and exterior life is testimony to his skill. Mr. O’Nan writes about every woman…and shows that there is no life that can be defined as ordinary.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 74 readers
PUBLISHER: Viking Adult (March 17, 2011)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
EXTRAS: Author Q&A and Reading Guide
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March 24, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Character Driven, Contemporary, Literary

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