For an 80-year-old widow living alone, far from her children – even a reasonably healthy and financially comfortable woman – each day presents a challenge. In Emily, Alone, his 12th novel, Stewart O’Nan persuasively illuminates this sad fact. Like his earlier books, the novel showcases O’Nan’s eye for the telling detail, his precise, economical prose, and the depth of his characterization.
At the heart of he book is the notion that Emily’s life is “no longer an urgent or necessary business.” The novel opens just before Thanksgiving, and already Emily makes it clear that she is “waiting for spring.” She lives in the stucco house in which she and her late husband, Henry, had raised their two children, Margaret and Kenneth – now both middle-aged and occupied out-of-state with families of their own. Emily’s neighborhood, located in the “right” part of Pittsburgh, remains leafy and safe, and she still belongs to the country club and employs a weekly cleaning lady. Her closest friend – indeed, her only friend due to so many deaths in the recent months – is her deceased husband’s sister, Arlene. With age, Arlene has transformed into an irritating person, but Emily feels genuine affection for her.
One morning, at the novel’s outset, the two women wait in the buffet line at a breakfast restaurant that they frequent weekly. Standing across the sneeze-guard from Emily with her plate piled high, Arlene suddenly passes out. Most readers expect the worst – a stroke or a brain tumor. But doctors could find nothing wrong with Arlene as she endured a week of hospital tests. O’Nan employs this narrative technique – of foreshadowing catastrophe only to have nothing disastrous unfold – frequently throughout the novel. It is, of course, an excellent way to keep readers emotionally engaged.
Emily, for example, is frail and often without appetite. Are we being set up for the onset in the main character of a fatal illness? Countless times each day she ascends and descends the steep, slippery stairway leading to her upstairs bedroom and bath. Undoubtedly, O’Nan is planting in our minds the fear that she might tumble to her death. At the very least, readers are prepared for the death of Rufus, Emily’s ancient, portly dog. When she is at home with him she carries on a running, one-way conversation with him. (One day as she prepares to leave the house for an outing, she says with mock sternness, “I’ve got my eye on you, Mister. I don’t want to find anything when I get home. You know what I’m talking about.”) But Rufus is very much alive at the book’s conclusion.
O’Nan finds drama not in accidents, illnesses, and death-bed scenes, but instead in Emily’s day-to-day activities and in her mental preoccupations. She frets over the scratch on her new, bright-blue Subaru Outback, over the failure of thank-you notes to arrive from children and grandchildren, and over the mysterious markings on her street curb made by a city street crew. Interspersed with these worries are “overwhelming surges of memory that serve to further her constant sense of loss.”
Yet most often when Emily falls silent, she is thinking about Margaret and Ken. Her muddled relationships with each are the most important in the novel. During the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays she dwells on the fact that their enthusiasms for festive dinners and customs (i.e. church attendance and a live performance of The Nutcracker) do not match her own. She notices the tension running beneath conversations with them and their children. O’Nan points out that Emily is increasingly aware of her own culpability in her children’s shortcomings. A child of the Depression, Emily had been raised in a modest household, one that valued thrift and hard work. Because her children were products of their parents’ financial stability and valued self-expression, a generation gap existed. Both were embarrassed when she brought up the subject of money. They acted as if they were being reprimanded.
“Emily didn’t want her children to be rich or even financially successful. She wanted them to fulfill their responsibilities to others and to themselves, that was all. They both had so much promise (she would never believe she was mistaken in this), and yet they seemed so unhappy, so easily defeated.”
By choice, Margaret had grown up the hard way, dropping out of college, leaving home to wait tables and tend bar. She had shared apartments with dubious men. Now, a single mother of college-age children, she works as a hospital receptionist and doesn’t hide her status as a recovering alcoholic. Emily helps her financially.
The novel’s tone, however, is not continually heavy. With uncanny skill O’Nan captures Emily’s eccentricities. She methodically redistributes Kleenex boxes throughout the house according to the number of tissues remaining in each. After her phone and door bell ring at nearly the same time she speaks of her quiet home as a “madhouse.”
While O’Nan can be uproariously funny in depicting Emily’s elderly foibles, he respects his main character and attributes to her an enviable wisdom:
“The temptation was to mourn [the old] days when they were young and busy and alive. As much as Emily missed them, she understood the reason that era seemed so rich – partly, at least – was because it was past, memorialized, the task they had set themselves of raising families accomplished.”
The book ends on a hopeful note. Not only is it summer, the annual family reunion at Lake Chautauqua is just around the corner. Emily’s mood is upbeat. O’Nan relates:
“At her age it was dangerous to think the past was all she had, her life already defined, when every day was another chance.”