Emily, Alone

( 46 )

Overview

A bittersweet tale of love and longing from the bestselling author of Last Night at the Lobster.

Once again making the ordinary and overlooked not merely visible but vital to understanding our own lives, Stewart O'Nan confirms his position as an American master with Emily, Alone. A sequel to the bestselling, much-beloved Wish You Were Here, O'Nan's intimate novel follows Emily Maxwell, a widow whose grown children have long departed. She dreams of visits from her grandchildren ...

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Emily, Alone

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Overview

A bittersweet tale of love and longing from the bestselling author of Last Night at the Lobster.

Once again making the ordinary and overlooked not merely visible but vital to understanding our own lives, Stewart O'Nan confirms his position as an American master with Emily, Alone. A sequel to the bestselling, much-beloved Wish You Were Here, O'Nan's intimate novel follows Emily Maxwell, a widow whose grown children have long departed. She dreams of visits from her grandchildren while mourning the turnover of her quiet Pittsburgh neighborhood. When her sister-in-law and sole companion, Arlene, faints at their favorite breakfast buffet, Emily's life changes in unexpected ways. As she grapples with her new independence, she discovers a hidden strength and realizes that life always offers new possibilities.

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Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
[Emily, Alone] quietly shuffles in where few authors have dared to go. And it's so humane and so finely executed that I hope it finds those sensitive readers who will appreciate it…Through short, crisp chapters we follow Emily's well-ordered, dignified life, frequently challenged by calamities and disappointments large and small, all gently captured in O'Nan's precise, unadorned prose…Emily, Alone makes the perfect demonstration of O'Nan's humanizing vision.
—The Washington Post
Joanna Smith Rakoff
…O'Nan's best novel yet…[is] heartbreaking stuff…and yet the novel's brilliance lies just as much in O'Nan's innate comic timing, which often stems from Emily's self-imposed isolation from, and disgust with, the modern world…If O'Nan's earlier novels were influenced by Poe, the spectre of Henry James hovers delicately above Emily's Grafton Street home, insinuating itself into O'Nan's spiraling, exact sentences and the beautiful, subtle symbolism that permeates the novel.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
O'Nan checks back in with the Maxwell family from Wish You Were Here in this bracingly unsentimental, ruefully humorous, and unsparingly candid novel about the emotional and physical travails of old age. At 80, widow Emily Maxwell has become dependent on her equally aged sister-in-law, Arlene, to chauffeur them to the rounds of Pittsburgh's country club dinners, flower shows, museums, and increasingly frequent funerals. After Arlene has a stroke, Emily is forced into reclaiming her independence, but she remains clear-eyed about her diminishing future and what she can expect of her two adult children and four grandchildren, giving O'Nan the opportunity and space to expertly play out the misunderstandings, disagreements, and resentments among parents and their grown children. Emily fears saying the wrong things (yet often does) and frets about her grandchildren, who are uninterested in family traditions and lax with thank-you notes. The unhurried plot follows Emily from a lonely Thanksgiving with Arlene to a Christmas visit from her daughter and two grandchildren, Easter with her son and his children, and the eve of her summer departure to Chautauqua. During this time, friends and acquaintances die, Emily observes the deterioration of the neighborhoods she's known for decades, and she continues to converse with her old dog, Rufus. Efficient, practical, stubborn, frugal, and a lover of crosswords, church services, and baroque music, the closely observed Emily is a sort of contemporary Mrs. Bridge, and O'Nan's depiction of her attempts to sustain optimism and energy during the late stage of her life achieves a rare resonance. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Award winner O'Nan returns to the Maxwell family in this sequel to Wish You Were Here. Emily Maxwell, widowed and head of a flawed family beset with disappointments, confronts her own mortality when her sister-in-law Arlene suffers a fainting spell. The doctors can't diagnose the cause, but it is indicative of what's happening to their friends, most in poor health and limited to walkers or confined to wheelchairs. Upon hearing of the death of a friend, Emily asks herself whether she is mourning the passing of a friend or of happier times when they were busy, young, and alive. Gone are the genteel traditions that kept the older generation running smoothly, traditions lacking in her own grown children, Kenneth and Margaret. Margaret, a recovering alcoholic, is divorced and has two children to raise; her finances are a disaster; and she has no job. Kenneth's wife's hostility to Emily causes tension at family gatherings. Emily copes by keeping to her routines, accompanied by her aging dog, Rufus, knowing that she can do only so much to keep the inevitable changes at bay. VERDICT With sympathy and compassion, O'Nan spotlights the plight of aging baby boomers, further enriching our understanding of the human condition. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/10.]—Donna Bettencourt, Mesa Cty. P.L., Grand Junction, CO
Kirkus Reviews

Another quietly poignant character study from O'Nan (Songs for the Missing, 2008, etc.), this one tracing the daily routines and pensive inner life of an elderly widow.

Emily Maxwell, newly bereaved in Wish You Were Here (2002), is now more or less accustomed to life without her beloved husband Henry. His death and the more recent loss of her best friend Louise are still painful, but she's adjusted. She has her aging dog Rufus for company; she's a regular churchgoer; she reads and listens to classical music; every Tuesday she drives with her sister-in-law Arlene from their separate homes in Pittsburgh to the suburban Eat 'n Park's two-for-one breakfast buffet. Arlene's collapse at the restaurant dramatically closes the first chapter, but otherwise O'Nan's low-key narrative bears out Emily's uneasy sense that "she was at an age where all was stillness and waiting." Holiday visits from her children underscore fraught family relations. Daughter Margaret, a recovering alcoholic in shaky economic circumstances, has always annoyed Emily with her messy feelings and disorganized ways. Son Kenneth is dutiful but reserved; Emily and his wife Lisa dislike each other. Her four grandchildren are in college or beginning careers; "it was hard to follow their lives from a distance." Emily is well aware that she too distanced herself from her family when she married the more privileged Henry, and her unsentimental musings over past and present relationships form the novel's emotional core as nine months unfold from November 2007 to the following July. O'Nan gently depicts Emily—inclined to be as critical of herself as of those who don't meet her exacting, old-fashioned standards—trying to judge less and accept more. She doesn't change so much as let go, learning that an existence diminished by age and loss is nonetheless precious for the pleasures that remain: gardening in the spring, going through childhood mementoes, simply knowing that she has lived, loved and endured.

Rueful and autumnal, but very moving.

The Barnes & Noble Review

The elderly widow, soldiering on alone after her husband's death, long after her children have grown and moved away, may not be the stuff of high drama, but it contains a mother lode (so to speak) of rich material. And why not? Who better to delve into issues of mortality and values than those nearing the end who, ironically, have plenty of time on their hands for deep reflection? These women maintain rich inner lives even as their worlds contract.

Often, as in Clyde Edgerton's hilarious Walking Across Egypt (1987) -- a personal favorite -- plots turn on an unexpected connection between a dowager and a troubled youngster. But in Stewart O'Nan's Emily, Alone, a welcome follow-up to his 2002 novel, Wish You Were Here, the emphasis, as the title suggests, is Emily, toute seule, determined to uphold standards and maintain discipline even as her world erodes.

O'Nan's novels, including The Good Wife, which also convincingly captures a woman's perspective, and Last Night At the Lobster, often focus on blue-collar America. Emily, born in 1931 and rescued from the sticks by her marriage to Pittsburgh engineer Henry Maxwell, is financially well-off enough to help out her struggling middle-aged children. Wish You Were Here first introduced her a year after Henry's death, grappling with family issues -- her daughter Margaret's alcoholism and broken marriage and her son Kenneth's fractured dreams -- during a gathering at the Maxwells' beloved cottage on Lake Chautauqua in western New York before finalizing its sale.

Emily, Alone takes place six years later. Nearing 80, Emily is still going strong both mentally and physically. She still misses the man who "knew the 18-year-old lifeguard she used to be, and the fashionable grad student, the coltish young mother." She continues to live alone in her meticulously kept Pittsburgh house with her portly, gassy, extremely aged spaniel, Rufus, who according to my calculations, must be nearing a record-breaking 20.

The emptiness in Emily's life is compounded by the distance of her family and the recent death of her best friend. Her closest remaining companion is her never-married sister-in-law Arlene, a retired schoolteacher who, despite her alarming driving, is the designated chauffeur on their outings to art and flower shows, club dinners, and, increasingly, funerals. When Arlene suffers a small stroke during their weekly pilgrimage to the Eat 'n Park's two-for-one breakfast buffet, it's a wake-up call to Emily, galvanizing her to crank up Henry's outsized Chevrolet. To her surprise, driving makes her feel "part of something larger again." Her children are shocked when she purchases her first car ever -- a Subaru wagon -- after careful research on Henry's old computer.

Not much happens in Emily, Alone -- which is not to say, of course, that the novel isn't full of interest. Like Evan S. Connell's indelible Mrs. Bridge, Emily, Alone deftly (and more lovingly) captures the texture of the thoughts and days of a comfortable American woman who has outlived her primary role as a wife and mother -- how a crossword puzzle is rationed to last all week and small chores such as distributing tissue boxes around the house or writing thank you notes assume enlarged importance. Emily is all too aware of her static situation, most keenly feeling "her own inertia, her life no longer an urgent or necessary business" during "that gray time of day just before the school buses rolled."

The strength to endure such an attenuated life proves hardest during the long Pittsburgh winter, through which Emily sustains herself with anticipation of gardening and the promise of holiday visits from Kenneth and Margaret and her four grandchildren, which are at once disturbingly disruptive to her solitary routines yet also all too brief. The highlight of her year, eagerly awaited for months, remains her annual summer visit to Lake Chautauqua with her whole family gathered, now reduced to a single week.

O'Nan beautifully evokes a woman who "prized, above all, self-reliance" yet recognizes that she's "outgrown most of her earthly desires," with the pointed exception of wishing she could see more of her children and grandchildren. Emily is an endearing character, fussy yet unusually self-aware and sanguine about her own mortality. She struggles to hold her criticism in check, not just of others -- including Mr. Impatient/ Mr. Fatty/ a.k.a. Rufus -- but of herself. The result is a warmhearted, clear-eyed portrait of a woman in her dotage who understands that life is both awfully long and woefully short, much of it passed in waiting and regret, but never, heaven forbid, about just the past, since "every day was another chance."

--Heller McAlpin

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143120490
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/27/2011
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 326,736
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 0.58 (d)

Meet the Author

Stewart O'Nan

Stewart O'Nan is the author of a dozen award-winning novels, including Snow Angels, A Prayer for the Dying, and The Good Wife, as well as several works of nonfiction, including, with Stephen King, the bestselling Faithful. He lives in Pittsburgh.

Biography

Stewart O'Nan grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, addicted to cartoons, horror comics, Tarzan, science fiction, movies, TV, and garage punk. He studied aerospace engineering at Boston University, where he developed more rarified tastes (Camus, Coltrane, and the Beats), along with a lifelong obsession with the Boston Red Sox. After graduation, he worked as a test engineer for Grumman Aerospace in Long Island, devoting every spare moment he could find to writing. Then, with the encouragement of his wife, he enrolled in Cornell University to pursue a master's degree.

By the time O'Nan had finished graduate school, a few of his short stories had begun to attract some attention. He moved his family west and taught at the University of Central Oklahoma and the University of New Mexico. Then, in 1993, he hit pay dirt when his short story collection, In the Walled City, won the Drue Heinz Prize for Short Fiction. A year later, his first novel, Snow Angels, was awarded a Pirate's Alley William Faulkner Prize. Since then, he has gone on to forge a distinguished literary career. A self-described "fiction-writing machine," the multi-award-winning O'Nan averages a book a year. In 1996, Granta named him one of the Twenty Best Young American Novelists.

Although critics try to shoehorn his fiction into the horror genre, O'Nan's writing is far too complex and nuanced to permit such blatant categorization. True, his stories are suffused with trauma and tragedy, and his characters react unpredictably to the stress of terrible events; but the violence in O'Nan's fiction owes as much to Flannery O'Connor as to Stephen King -- two authors he acknowledges as important influences.

In addition to his novels, the prolific O'Nan has written a nonfiction account of the notorious 1944 Hartford Circus Fire. He is also co-author with fellow Bo-Sox fan Stephen King of Faithful, a chronicle of the team's legendary 2004 season.

Good To Know

In our exclusive interview, Stewart O'Nan shared some fun and fascinating facts about himself:

"Growing up, I delivered the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to David McCullough's, Annie Dillard's and Nathaniel Philbrick's houses. The Philbricks tipped you a dime to put it in their screen door."

"The first novels I read with rapt fascination were Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan series -- coverless, bought for a dime apiece at a Cub Scout rummage sale."

"Back in the early '80s, when I'd just begun to read seriously, I met Doris Lessing at the Kenmore Square Barnes & Noble before her very first game at Fenway Park. She seemed genuinely excited, and apprehensive, as if she might be asked to play."

"The library is still my favorite place in the world."

"I'd rather be reading than doing anything else, including writing."

"I'm an obsessive collector -- coins, books, records, baseball cards."

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    1. Also Known As:
      James Coltrane
    2. Hometown:
      Avon, CT
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 4, 1961
    2. Place of Birth:
      Pittsburgh, PA
    1. Education:
      B.S., Aerospace Engineering, Boston University, 1983; M.F.A., Cornell University, 1992
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Praise for Emily, Alone

“O’Nan’s best novel yet . . . It’s heartbreaking stuff—I will confess that I found myself sobbing at certain, often unexpected, points . . . and yet the novel’s brilliance lies just as much in O’Nan’s innate comic timing, which often stems from Emily’s self-imposed isolation from, and disgust with, the modern world. . . . If O’Nan’s earlier novels were influenced by Poe, the specter of Henry James hovers delicately above Emily’s Grafton Street home, insinuating itself into O’Nan’s spiraling, exact sentences and the beautiful, subtle symbolism that permeates the novel.”

The New York Times Book Review

“Emily is as authentic a character as any who ever walked the pages of a novel. She could be our grandmother, our mother, our next-door neighbor, our aunt. Our self . . . In a portrait filled with joy and rue, O’Nan does not wield a wide brush across a vast canvas but, rather, offers an exquisite miniature. Just as Emily prefers Van Gogh’s depiction of a branch of an almond tree over the more spectacular Sunflowers, so, too, do we readers appreciate an ordinary life made, by its quiet rendering, extraordinary. No matter her—and our—unavoidable end, Emily . . . teaches us that small moments not only count but also endure.”

—Mameve Medwed, The Boston Globe

“It takes a deft hand to do justice to the ordinary . . . but, if the mundane matters to you, then Stewart O’Nan is your man. . . . O’Nan’s glory as a writer is that he conveys the full force of the quotidian without playing it for slapstick or dressing it up as Profound. . . . Emily, Alone [is] moody, lightly comic, and absolutely captivating. . . . With economy, wit, and grace, O’Nan ushers us into the shrinking world of a pleasantly flawed, rather ordinary old woman and keeps us readers transfixed by the everyday miracles of monotony.”

—Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air

“To say that nothing happens in this [Emily, Alone] is like saying that there’s nothing going on in that glorious room in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum where Rembrandt’s numerous portraits of his mother hang. . . . [O’Nan] is a seamless craftsman who specializes in the lives of ordinary people. In Emily Maxwell, O’Nan has created a sturdy everywoman, occasionally blemished by pettiness and disdain for common idiocy, but always striving for a moral equilibrium.”

San Francisco Chronicle

“As riveting as a fast-paced thriller, albeit one that delves into the life and psyche of an elderly woman.”

The Miami Herald

“Stewart O’Nan’s books are not about poverty, life’s crises, gross injustice, or family drama; in fact, there’s very little drama in his works. He has become a spokesperson—in modern fiction—for the regular person, the working person, and now, the elderly. . . . This is a writer who illuminates moments like that one, moments you never even noticed. . . . O’Nan’s thoroughness is like a skill from another time—a quieter time, when it was easier to listen.”

Los Angeles Times

“O’Nan’s storytelling is as patient and meticulous as his heroine. He illuminates the everyday with splendid precision. Readers who appreciate psychological nuance and fictional filigree will delight in Emily, Alone.”

—Stephen Amidon, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

“Emily stretches for a kind of rediscovery. Throughout she is lovable and heartbreaking and real. When this novel ends, in a moment of great hope and vigor, you’ll find yourself missing her terribly.”

Entertainment Weekly (Grade A)

“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. . . . [A] plainspoken but brassy, somber but straight-talking [tone] infuses this entire nervy, elegant book.”

Minneapolis Star Tribune

“[O’Nan] is an author who would drive all around town to avoid running over a single cheap thrill. He subverts our desire for commotion and searches instead for drama in the quotidian motions of survivors. . . . [Emily, Alone] quietly shuffles in where few authors have dared to go. And it’s so humane and so finely executed that I hope it finds those sensitive readers who will appreciate it.”

—Ron Charles in The Washington Post

Emily, Alone demonstrates that though the distance between an incredibly boring book and a fascinating one may seem small, it is actually miles wide. It takes a madly inventive writer to make a novel about an old woman’s daily existence as absorbing as this one is.”

The Daily

“Stewart O’Nan is a master of introspection.”

The Denver Post

“O’Nan’s book, with great poignancy and humor, offers a rare glimpse into the life of a woman whose life is nearing an end. . . . [Emily is] an irresistible character—funny, flawed, and thoroughly unsentimental about her inevitable fate. . . . In different hands, this might have been a morose book, but it’s actually delightful. O’Nan’s ability to deliver such a flawless portrait of a woman thirty years his senior speaks to his gifts as a writer.”

The Dallas Morning News

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.”

The Huffington Post

“O’Nan has the rare ability to make the ordinary seem unordinary in a way that is reminiscent of Updike.”

The Daily Beast

“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. . . . O’Nan is a true virtuoso. . . . [Emily] is quietly heroic.”

—William Kist in The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Mr. O’Nan skillfully and sensitively re-creates Emily’s world, from the city streets she nervously navigates in the car to her fears of illness and death.”

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Old age treads the thin line between melancholy and mirth in Stewart O’Nan’s marvelous new novel, Emily, Alone.”

Buffalo News

“There’s a calm, enveloping tone to the story that belies its unflinching exploration of a woman’s chronically discontented heart. . . . Its chief pleasure comes from unraveling this little old lady’s mess tangle of emotions.”

BookPage

“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. . . . 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.”

Mostly Fiction Book Reviews (online)

“[Emily, Alone] is an elegant examination of aging, family, and identity with a fine balance of the surprising and the expected. It is at once optimistic and totally realistic, and every page is a joy to read. As a sequel or stand-alone title, Emily, Alone is an understated yet powerful character study from one of America’s outstanding storytellers.”

—Bookreporter.com

“[By reading Emily, Alone] it is possible that the reader could reach a deeper understanding of the stage of life or the ways that we visit the sins of our parents on our children or of the folly of holding on to outdated patterns of living. When it comes to showing us to ourselves, Stewart O’Nan is a master.”

New York Journal of Books

“A warmhearted, clear-eyed portrait of a woman in her dotage who understands that life is both awfully long and woefully short, much of it passed in waiting and regret, but never, heaven forbid, about just the past, since ‘every day was another chance.’”

Barnes and Noble Review

“This exquisite novel plumbs an interior landscape rarely explored in literature . . . It’s testament to O’Nan’s talent than Emily, Alone is a page-turner suffused with vibrancy, humor, even hope.”

Macleans

“Utterly devastating, poignant, so subtle. It is unpardonable that O’Nan is not a household name.”

—Edward Champion via Twitter

“Emily Maxwell, in Stewart O’Nan’s terrif Emily, Alone, joins India Bridge & Olive Kitteridge as women characters whom you won’t soon forget.”

—Nancy Pearl via Twitter

“[A] bracingly unsentimental, ruefully humorous, and unsparingly candid novel about the emotional and physical travails of old age. . . . The closely observed Emily is a sort of contemporary Mrs. Bridge, and O’Nan’s depiction of her attempts to sustain optimism and energy during the late stage of her life achieves a rare resonance.”

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“O’Nan again proves himself to be the king of detail. What people eat, how they eat it, what they think and say in the midst of eating it—this novel represents an almost minute mapping of the lay of the domestic land as O’Nan the sociological cartographer views it.”

Booklist (starred review)

“With sympathy and compassion, O’Nan spotlights the plight of aging baby boomers, further enriching our understanding of the human condition.”

Library Journal

“Another quietly poignant character study from O’Nan . . . Rueful and autumnal, but very moving.”

Kirkus Reviews

PENGUIN BOOKS

EMILY, ALONE

Stewart O’Nan is the author of fourteen novels, including The Odds; Emily, Alone; and Last Night at the Lobster, as well as several works of nonfiction, including, with Stephen King, the bestselling Faithful. He was born and raised in Pittsburgh, where he lives with his family.

ALSO BY STEWART O’NAN

FICTION

 

Songs for the Missing
Last Night at the Lobster
The Good Wife
The Night Country
Wish You Were Here
Everyday People
A Prayer for the Dying
A World Away
The Speed Queen
The Names of the Dead
Snow Angels
In the Walled City

 

NONFICTION

 

Faithful (with Stephen King)
The Circus Fire
The Vietnam Reader (editor)
On Writers and Writing, by John Gardner (editor)

 

SCREENPLAY

 

Poe

Table of Contents

Praise for Emily, Alone

About the Author

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Epigraph

 

TWO-FOR-ONE

JUST VISITING

MYSTERIES OF THE BRAIN

THE VIEW FROM THE FIFTH FLOOR

CLOSE TO NORMAL

THE RESURRECTION

PILGRIMS

THE BELLE OF THE BALL

THE DAY OF REST

KINDRED SPIRITS

FAMILY PICTURES

ALL-WHEEL DRIVE

HIGHWAY ROBBERY

KLEENEX

EXTRAVAGANCE

CHRISTMAS CHEER

THE BUSIEST DAY OF THE YEAR

PRESS FOR ASSISTANCE

THE HOSTESS WITH THE MOSTEST

EARTHLY POSSESSIONS

THE GIFT

HOUSEKEEPING

UNDER THE WEATHER

INGRATITUDE

FORGETFULNESS

MYSTERY!

PF

BEE MINE

A BAD HABIT

EXPRESSIONS OF SYMPATHY

THE DAMAGE

SPRING AHEAD

THE FLOWER SHOW

THE PROBLEM WITH GOOD FRIDAY

CURIOUS

THE GROWN-UP TABLE

POWER OF ATTORNEY

392

THE CRUELEST MONTH

ALMOND BLOSSOMS

DRIVE-BY

THE VIRTUAL TOUR

THE LESSER OF TWO EVILS

THE MYSTERY OF MARCIA COLE

BETTER OR WORSE?

WHITE ELEPHANTS

INNOCENT VICTIMS

LOVE, EMILY

THE START OF THE SEASON

TUBBY TATERS

CYD CHARISSE

IMPROVEMENTS

HARD TO KILL

OLD HOME DAYS

EXIT, STAGE LEFT

For my mother,
who took me to the bookmobile

Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life—startling, unexpected, unknown?

—Virginia Woolf

TWO-FOR-ONE

Tuesdays, Emily Maxwell put what precious little remained of her life in God’s and her sister-in-law Arlene’s shaky hands and they drove together to Edgewood for Eat ’n Park’s two-for-one breakfast buffet. The Sunday Post-Gazette, among its myriad other pleasures, had coupons. The rest of the week she might have nothing but melba toast and tea for breakfast, maybe peel herself a clementine for some vitamin C, but the deal was too good to pass up, and served as a built-in excuse to get out of the house. Dr. Sayid was always saying she needed to eat more.

It wasn’t far—a few miles through East Liberty and Point Breeze and Regent Square on broad streets they knew like old friends—but the trip was a test of Emily’s nerves. Arlene’s eyes weren’t the best, and her attention to the outside world was directly affected by whatever conversation they were engaged in. When she concentrated on a thought, she drove more slowly, making them the object of honking, and once, recently, from a middle-aged woman who looked surprisingly like Emily’s daughter Margaret, the finger.

“Obviously I must have done something,” Arlene had said.

“Obviously,” Emily agreed, though she could have cited a whole list. It did no good to criticize Arlene after the fact, no matter how constructively. The best you could do was hold on and not gasp at the close calls.

In the beginning they’d taken turns, but, honestly, as atrocious as Arlene was, Emily trusted herself even less. Henry had always done the driving in the family. It was a point of pride with him. When he was dying, he insisted on driving to the hospital for his chemo himself. It was only on the way home, with Henry sick and silent beside her, bent over a plastic bowl in his lap, that Emily piloted his massive Olds down the corkscrewing ramps of the medical center’s parking garage, terrified she’d scrape the sides against the scarred concrete walls. For several years she used the old boat to do her solitary errands, never venturing outside of the triangle described by the bank, the library and the Giant Eagle, but after a run-in with a fire hydrant, followed quickly by another with a Duquesne Light truck, she admitted—bitterly, since it went against her innate thriftiness—that maybe taking taxis was the better part of valor. Now the Olds sat out back in the garage with her rusty golf clubs as if decommissioned, the windshield dusty, the tires soft. She wasn’t a fan of the bus, and Arlene had made a standing offer of her Taurus, itself a boxy if less grand antique. The joke among their circle was that she’d become Emily’s chauffeur, though, as that circle shrank, fewer and fewer people knew their history, to the point where, having the same last name, they were sometimes introduced by the well-meaning young, at a University Club function or after one of Donald Wilkins’s wonderful organ recitals at Calvary, as sisters, a notion Arlene though not Emily found wildly amusing.

Today, as always, Arlene was late. It was gray and raining, typical November weather for Pittsburgh, and Emily stood at the living room’s bay window, leaning over the low radiator and holding the sheer curtain aside. The storm window was spotted and dirty. A few weekends ago, her nextdoor neighbor Jim Cole had generously hung them, but he’d failed to clean them properly, and now there was nothing to be done until the spring. She would spend a morning tending to them herself, the way her mother had taught her, with vinegar and water, wiping them streak-free with newsprint, but that was months off.

Outside, the trees and hedges along Grafton Street were bare and black, and the low sky made it feel like late afternoon instead of morning. The Millers’ was still for sale. Their leaves hadn’t been picked up yet, and lay smothering the yard, a dark, sodden mass. She wondered who would be looking to buy this time of year. The last she’d heard, Kay Miller was in an assisted living place over in Aspinwall, but that had been in August. Emily thought she should visit her, though in truth it was the last thing she wanted to do.

When she thought of fashionable, flighty Kay Miller in a place like the one in Aspinwall, she couldn’t help but picture Louise Pickering’s final hospital room. The oatmeal bareness, the mechanical bed, the plastic water pitcher with its bent straw on the rollaway table. Consciously, she knew those places could be very nice, just as homey as your own bedroom, or close to it, but the vision of Louise persisted, and the idea that she was at an age where all was stillness and waiting—not true, yet impossible to dismiss.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

It's the fall of 2007 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The upcoming presidential race is starting to take shape. The Steelers are on the march to a division title. But on Grafton Street near Highland Park, the days and nights can be disturbingly quiet for Emily Maxwell, a woman in her late seventies still trying to adjust to life without her beloved and recently deceased husband, Henry. With her old cadre of friends dwindling one by one and her two adult children living far away and wrapped up in their own lives, Emily does her best to fill her days by listening to classical music on the radio, reading George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, and caring for her aging but obstreperous dog Rufus. She lives an outwardly placid life of visits to art museums, gossip at her club, and two-for-one buffet breakfasts at the Eat 'n Park with her sister-in-law Arlene. That placidity is shattered, however, when, one morning at the Eat 'n Park, Arlene's speech suddenly garbles and she collapses to the floor. Arlene, after a brief stay at the hospital, is fine, but is Emily? Forced more than ever to look to her own resources, more conscious than ever that her own remaining time on earth will not likely be long, Emily quietly and slowly resumes a more active control of her life, determined to fill the days that she has left with thought, emotion, and meaning.

In Emily, Alone, with supreme sensitivity and exquisite detail, novelist Stewart O'Nan follows Emily through the better part of a year, illuminating her daily tasks, her holiday celebrations, and her unspoken yearnings and disappointments. In the pages of Emily, Alone readers already familiar with the Maxwell family from O'Nan's earlier novel Wish You Were Here are reunited with Emily's recovering alcoholic daughter Margaret and diligent, eager-to-please son Kenneth. Those who are meeting the family for the first time may find themselves strangely familiar with both the ties of emotion and experience that bind the Maxwells together and the subtle tensions that complicate their interactions. With a rare deftness of observation and minuteness of description, O'Nan shows us not merely a family but family itself—the sturdy but sensitive web that assumes so many different shapes but is somehow everywhere the same.

Eager for love but also unable to resist her need to direct the lives of her relatives, Emily Maxwell continually walks an emotional tightrope, striving simultaneously to recruit affection from her children and grandchildren but also to remind them that grandmother knows best. Ever conscious of her age and the widening gap between her own ideas and the mainstream of her society, she walks other tightropes as well: between a consciousness of change and a yearning for stasis; between the lengthening past and the shortening future; between the enduring preciousness of life and the inevitability of death. InEmily, Alone, Stewart O'Nan infuses the everyday with a miraculous vividness and urgency. Through Emily Maxwell, he firmly declares that no life is ordinary.

ABOUT STEWART O'NAN

Stewart O'Nan grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A graduate of Boston University, he began his professional life as a test engineer for Grumman Aerospace Corporation but left the corporate world to earn an M.F.A. from Cornell. In 1996, Granta named him one of America's Best Young Novelists. O'Nan is the author of a dozen novels, including Last Night at the Lobster and the prequel to Emily, Alone, titled Wish You Were Here. He lives with his family in Pittsburgh.

A CONVERSATION WITH STEWART O'NAN

Q. At first glance, you wouldn't seem to have all that much in common with Emily Maxwell, the widow in her late seventies who is the main character of Emily, Alone. How does a novelist go about thinking his way into the experiences and consciousness of someone so different from himself?

I share a great deal with Emily, in that, having previously written a six hundred-page novel about her and her family, I know the people closest to her extremely well. I also know her neighbors intimately, and her social circle, the little town she comes from, her parents, her sorority sisters, her old roommate Jocelyn. Much of it comes from my own family life, and much from just keeping my eyes open and taking notes, but some also comes from active research, location scouting, extensive interviews with people Emily's age and in Emily's situation. It all goes in, but finally it has to be strained through Emily's sensibility, Emily's feel for life, and that can only be felt or sensed. What, naturally, would Emily see, and what language would she use to describe it?

Q. Did you have a particular model or models for Emily?

When I did research for The Circus Fire, I did hundreds of interviews with survivors, most of whom were in their seventies and eighties. And when they invited me into their homes, they told me their stories not just about the fire but about their whole lives. That experience of looking back on life and appreciating where you are and how you got there comes from those survivors. In terms of personality, Emily shares much with my mother, my mother-in-law, my grandmothers, and my wife's grandmother.

Q. You have been compared with the late John Updike. How do you respond to critical efforts to situate your work in relation to that of other well-known novelists?

Really—Updike? That's flattering, in that he was an amazingly talented and accomplished writer, but there's only one Updike, and his best books—the ones that will live on—are books only he was capable of writing. I hope that's true of my books too. I can't imagine anyone else even thinking about writing A Prayer for the Dying or Last Night at the Lobster or Snow Angels or A World Away.

Q. If you'll allow another comparison, your evocation of Pittsburgh in Emily, Alone also reminded us of William Kennedy's Albany novels. What would you like readers who have never been there to understand about the Steel City?

Again, very flattering, though so far I've only written three or four books of Pittsburgh or western Pennsylvania fiction. I guess what I'd like readers to understand is that the worlds of Everyday People and Emily, Alone exist side by side, within blocks of each other, and that the world of Snow Angels exists maybe twenty minutes away.

Q. How do you respond to the tag "regional novelist"? Do you consider it descriptively illuminating or limiting when applied to your recent work?

I'm not sure I represent any particular region, having written novels set in Oklahoma; nineteenth-century Wisconsin, Vietnam, and Ithaca; Alaska and the Hamptons and San Diego; inner-city Pittsburgh; upper-crust suburban Connecticut; rust-belt Connecticut; small town PA; Vermont and Ohio and upstate New York. Even though Emily, Alone is set in a great American city, I'd rather go with American provincial novelist. Lately I find myself interested in people and places that are normally overlooked, and in stories about endurance—just how people make it through the days.

Q. Novels like Emily, Alone and your previous work with the same characters, Wish You Were Here, operate more through the patient building up of detail and elaboration of character than through fast-paced, hard-driving plot. As an artist, what do you regard as the risks of this kind of approach, and how do you respond to them?

The risk of going slow and not pumping up the plot or pace with sensational action or gaudy, overdone language is that you may lose the casual or even the jaded literary reader used to the beats of TV or movies or the flash of what used to be called purple prose. The reward is that, if they stick with it, patient readers may fall into a fully realized world that summons memories and emotions from their own lives, the two worlds—fictional and real—mingling in intimate ways they can't in more artificial, slam-bang plotted fiction. When I read a book, I'm hoping to be moved, and moved deeply, honestly, without being manipulated. So naturally I'm hoping I might provide readers with a similar experience.

Q. Within the world of the novel, Ella is Emily's favorite grandchild. Is she yours as well?

I'm going to sound like a grandparent here, but I like all of them equally. And celebrate and worry about all of them, still.

Frankly, we never expected to read a novel with a chapter devoted to the heroine's dog's thyroid condition. Is it your novelistic philosophy that literally no detail is too small to merit artistic treatment?

If it's important to Emily, it's important to the story. The book is contained by her days and seasons, but organized by her emotions.

Q. As one might expect from a novel with an elderly protagonist, thoughts of death are always at least at the perimeter of Emily's consciousness. Did writing this novel bring you toward a more refined understanding of death and dying?

Death and dying are way too big to comprehend. Writing through Emily's eyes brought me closer to an understanding of having to say goodbye to everything you love, or once loved. Of a whole world passing, while you remain behind, and yet trying to hold on to some faith.

Q. One of Emily's frustrations as a character is that the world of public culture no longer seems to respond to her interests and concerns. Her favorite classical radio station plays only the safe, predictable Vivaldi mix, Masterpiece Theatre has grown unrecognizably postmodern, and the Van Gogh exhibit at the local museum has been overrun by unruly nine-year-olds. What are your own thoughts about the way current American society packages and consumes culture?

I think my generation's been lucky in that the packaging and production of the pop culture we care about has gotten better and better, as well as more and more convenient, but of course we're the generation that the marketers cater to. Emily's generation doesn't care that you can find all the Velvet Underground bootlegs you could ever desire with a quick search, or that, come October, you can TiVo all of the Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing Hammer Dracula classics. But of course Emily's idea of culture is borrowed. Since she grew up poor in a small town, her great fear is that she'll appear unsophisticated, so she tends to prize those artists whose work somehow signifies to others her good taste.

Q. Emily also feels alienated by politics in the age of W. and Obama. Do you think her feelings are an inevitable side effect of aging, or have we been witnessing a political game change of a profounder nature?

To Emily, the political discourse seems debased, and the two parties short-sighted. She's a moderate Republican, and so partyless in 2008. I don't think she's alienated from the state of U.S. politics because of age but because she really wants to believe that her candidate of choice will be a person of substance who will put forth and pursue a coherent platform of fiscal responsibility and (extremely mild) social progressivism. So she can believe in individualism (and American exceptionalism) as well as equal rights and equal pay for equal work.

Q. You have intimated in other interviews that, for you as a writer, truth is a paramount concern. Yet the genre in which you express yourself is called fiction; by definition, it's not true. What, for you, is the nature of novelistic truth? How, if at all, does it differ from Truth?

An impossible question to answer, or maybe the whole novels are a form of answer. As a writer, I'm always interrogating the words I've written (because words can sound great but tell complete lies(, and I'm asking myself: Is that what the character would really do? Is that what the world is really like? Is that how life really feels?

Q. We've talked to biographers who would like someday to try fiction so that they can finally be liberated from their necessary allegiance to fact. You have written nonfiction, both about a tragic circus fire and the 2004 Red Sox. When you write nonfiction, how does it feel to be freed from the conventions of fiction?

Nonfiction is way too confining, if you want to do it honestly. It's much more fun just being able to make stuff up. At this point I've written thirteen novels and two books of nonfiction. No matter what game you're playing, a 13 – 2 score is a pretty fair whupping.

Q. Emily, Alone both begins and ends in medias res. Are we likely to hear more about the Maxwell family?

I never thought I'd return to them after Wish You Were Here, so I guess anything's possible.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How do cars and driving become emblems of independence and control in Emily, Alone?
  • How do holidays contribute to the structure and pacing of O'Nan's novel?
  • In the sense that she is the main character of the novel, Emily Maxwell is the heroine of Emily, Alone. In what other senses can she be described as heroic? Do you find her deficient as a hero in any sense?
  • Emily's dog Rufus is almost as significant as any of the human characters in the novel. What role does he play, and how would the artistry of the novel be different without him?
  • Emily's favorite classical music station supplies a kind of soundtrack to O'Nan's novel. What function is served by the continual references to the music that Emily hears? What do her judgments regarding music say about her character and the cultural world in which she lives?
  • In what ways does Emily's strained relationship with her daughter Margaret appear to repeat Emily's relationship with her own mother? How successful is Emily in her effort not to repeat her mother's mistakes?
  • How does Emily's daughter Margaret's history of alcohol abuse affect both their relationship and the way Emily now thinks about drinking?
  • What role is played by religion in Emily, Alone?
  • How did you respond to the information O'Nan gives the reader regarding Emily's political opinions? Why does Emily feel so politically disaffected?
  • Compare the visits of Emily's two children and their families: Margaret at Christmas and Kenneth at Easter. Which is more satisfying for Emily, and why? What lies at the root of the discomforts that attend each gathering?
  • Small mysteries occasionally appear at the periphery of Emily's world: a neighbor standing outside naked in the middle of the night; a spray-painted number on her sidewalk. What do these seemingly small but peculiar occurrences add to the atmosphere of the novel?
  • Imagine Emily as your mother-in-law. Would you find her efforts to relate to you and your children endearing or infuriating? How would you respond to her simultaneous desires to be loved and to exert influence?
  • What do you think of Emily's response to the professed lesbianism of her granddaughter Ella? Placed in Emily's position, would you handle the situation differently? If so, how?
  • Discuss Emily's thoughts and feelings regarding death. What adjectives best describe her attitude? What does Emily, Alone as a whole have to teach us about the last years of life?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 46 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(19)

4 Star

(11)

3 Star

(8)

2 Star

(4)

1 Star

(4)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 46 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2011

    Quiet, lovely, poignant

    If you like books with hard-driving forward motion, this one isn't for you. But if you find a lot of contemporary fiction thin and too clever by far, and long for a quiet, careful work of literature that resonates with tenderness toward humanity, you will probably enjoy Emily, Alone. Emily Maxwell is 80 and lives alone in Pittsburgh with her aging dog, Rufus, in the house she once shared with her late husband. She's thoughtful, reflective, very much a creature of habit; enjoys listening to classical music on the radio; and has given up driving due to fear. But a small, unexpected event causes Emily to broaden her horizons just a tiny bit, when that had seemed impossible. She's a fully-fledged, sympathetic character, and I loved this rich, slow-moving book. Reading it was like lingering in a warm bath.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 15, 2011

    Beautiful and insightful

    This book was slow because it puts you squarely in the mind of a middle class aging woman. I was especially moved that a male author could capture this phase of motherhood with such insight and compassion. If your parents are 70+ this will give you insights and leave you uncomfortable but appreciative.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2011

    Don't bother!

    This was one of the most boring books that I've ever read. Totally mundane. I kept waiting
    for the story to get better...go somewhere...do something....nothing...all the way to the end. The only joy I got from it was from the last page because it was finished. I bought the book in Nook form but had I borrowed it from the library or from a friend I never would have continued reading this dribble. Waste of time and money

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 9, 2011

    loved it.....mostly

    on one hand.... this is a GREAT book. On the other hand, the ending left me wanting something...just don't know what.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 11, 2013

    One of my favorite books ever. Why? Because he captures the ev

    One of my favorite books ever. Why? Because he captures the every day life and family interactions of aging Emily and her family so sweetly, poignantly and realistically. My only disappointment was when the book ended. Still hoping for one more about Emily. She reminds me of my own mother and the insights into growing older are amazing. I recommend this book whenever possible.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 3, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    How is it that O’Nan can center an entire book around norm

    How is it that O’Nan can center an entire book around normal, day-to-day activities and still make it thought-provoking, poignant and interesting to read? Seriously, the man amazes me. This is absolutely a “quiet” sort of book. There are no huge plot points to shake things up but there is humor, genuine angst and a fondness for these characters that is surprising as much as it is welcoming.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 15, 2012

    Loved It!

    This is an easy-read and an uplifting novel about a time of life that's often ignored by many authors. The characters are appealing and realistic and I enjoyed the book. I've ordered more of Stewart Nan's novels on the basis of this one.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2011

    Wonderful Character Study

    O'Nan is a master of showing how even everyday events help to define an individual. He creates in Emily a fascinating character.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 13, 2011

    There is no "sample"...

    There is no "sample" to read, only leading pages. Disappointing.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2014

    Wc

    I start to kick my legs

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 28, 2013

    Greykit

    Sprint out of a rabbit hole and runs down into another one

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2013

    Snow

    She knocks Lionkit out, then brings Lionkit back to Bloodclan.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2013

    Clawkit

    Yes you are right. I will help. They may think im still one of them

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2013

    Caramelkit

    "Greykit and my side. Were rescuing kits." I say quietly.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2013

    Stealth

    Pads in and grabs Shinekit and Caramelkit by the scruff an pads briskly to 'blood kill' res 3.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2013

    Shinekit

    Musthave been falsr info

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2013

    Dawnkit to all

    Read what I said at blood kill result 20! It's important!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2013

    Spiritkit, bramblekit

    Spiritkit heads back to her home with bramblekit and lionkit

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2013

    Lionkit

    He nods and heads into the dark, interconnecting hole.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2014

    Nightpelt

    She went faster

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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