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.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Date of Birth:February 4, 1961
Place of Birth:Pittsburgh, PA
Education:B.S., Aerospace Engineering, Boston University, 1983; M.F.A., Cornell University, 1992
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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.”
“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.”
“Old age treads the thin line between melancholy and mirth in Stewart O’Nan’s marvelous new novel, Emily, Alone.”
“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.”
“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.”
“[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.”
“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.”
“Another quietly poignant character study from O’Nan . . . Rueful and autumnal, but very moving.”
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
Songs for the Missing
Last Night at the Lobster
The Good Wife
The Night Country
Wish You Were Here
A Prayer for the Dying
A World Away
The Speed Queen
The Names of the Dead
In the Walled City
Faithful (with Stephen King)
The Circus Fire
The Vietnam Reader (editor)
On Writers and Writing, by John Gardner (editor)
Table of Contents
Praise for Emily, Alone
About the Author
MYSTERIES OF THE BRAIN
THE VIEW FROM THE FIFTH FLOOR
CLOSE TO NORMAL
THE BELLE OF THE BALL
THE DAY OF REST
THE BUSIEST DAY OF THE YEAR
PRESS FOR ASSISTANCE
THE HOSTESS WITH THE MOSTEST
UNDER THE WEATHER
A BAD HABIT
EXPRESSIONS OF SYMPATHY
THE FLOWER SHOW
THE PROBLEM WITH GOOD FRIDAY
THE GROWN-UP TABLE
POWER OF ATTORNEY
THE CRUELEST MONTH
THE VIRTUAL TOUR
THE LESSER OF TWO EVILS
THE MYSTERY OF MARCIA COLE
BETTER OR WORSE?
THE START OF THE SEASON
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?
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.
Reading Group Guide
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.