Emily, Alone

 by Stewart O’Nan

Stewart O’Nan’s novels just keep getting better and better (and they were good to start with). If you missed Snow Angels, his 1995 debut, remedy that situation soon. I loved Last Night at the Lobster, and now Emily, Alone, his newest novel, is just about all that a reader looking for three-dimensional characters, terrific writing, and a true-to-life plot could ask for. It seems to me that those of us—and I am one —who are drawn to character-driven novels are really voyeurs at heart; we want to get inside a character’s head and understand what makes them tick. O’Nan’s novel satisfies that desire. Emily Maxwell, 80-year-old widow, mother, grandmother, and loyal support to her late husband’s sister, Arlene (although she doesn’t always like her), returns. (O’Nan first introduced Emily in his earlier book, Wish You Were Here, but it’s not necessary to read it to love this one.) O’Nan gives us a vivid picture of Emily’s slowing-down life: the museum visits, the funerals of friends, a trip to the flower show, doing the crossword puzzles she loves, worrying about her aging dog Rufus, listening to classical music, and, after Arlene’s stroke, caring for her sometimes difficult sister-in-law. O’Nan is spot on as he makes us understand the push and pull, tension and love, of three generations of a family, as he describes, for example, Emily’s attempt to remain close to—but not dependent on—her two grown children and four grandchildren. She tries—and sometimes succeeds—in not resenting when thank-you notes don’t arrive promptly (or at all), or when long-lived family traditions are thrown to the wind by the younger generation. In this glimpse into one family’s life over the course of most of a year, O’Nan shines a light into all our lives. Fans of Evan Connell’s masterpiece, Mrs. Bridge, or Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge are natural readers for this powerful and moving novel.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Emily, Alone

  1. meiere01

    Thank you for introducing me to this great novel. I have since passed it on to other who loved it just as much (and yes, I gave you credit). The mark of a great book (or at least great character) is when the book ends and you are disappointed you cannot continue to be a part of their life.

  2. Mary

    One of my favorite writers and so hard to describe. I work at a bookstore and love introducing customers to his works. My favorites: A Prayer for the Dying and Everyday People.

  3. Cheryl McKeon

    I love Emily, Alone but found myself searching for ways to describe it. Thank you, again, Nancy, for putting into words how I feel; I’ll be borrowing your phrases. (I also appreciate O’Nan’s accurate depiction of the uniquely Pittsburgh terrain.)

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