Emily, Alone

Emily, Alone

by Stewart O'Nan

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Overview

The moving companion novel to Henry, Himself and a bittersweet vision of love, family, and aging from bestselling author Stewart O'Nan

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143120490
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/27/2011
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 109,699
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

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.

Hometown:

Avon, CT

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

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.

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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Emily, Alone 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 56 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Ched23 More than 1 year ago
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.
_Becki_ More than 1 year ago
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.
TiBookChatter More than 1 year ago
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.
Lilyrose12 More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
O'Nan is a master of showing how even everyday events help to define an individual. He creates in Emily a fascinating character.
theelaine More than 1 year ago
on one hand.... this is a GREAT book. On the other hand, the ending left me wanting something...just don't know what.
oldblack on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the second of two books in the 'Emily Maxwell' series, about the aging matriarch of a family living in north-east America. I wasn't especially taken with the first book, which focused on Emily's children, and even her grandchildren I think O'Nan is more in touch with Emily's generation, which is the focus of this book, and I believe he does a much better job of filling out Emily's character. She isn't necessarily a person that we will all love, but I think we do get a good understanding of what makes Emily tick and why she presents a particular face to the world. You generally don't read O'Nan's books if you're looking for action, and this book is no exception. The interest is in seeing how Emily reacts to the dawning realisation that she is pretty much on her own now, and will be more and more alone in time. She has relatives and a few friends, but they really don't wish to spend a lot of time with Emily - they have their own issues to deal with. The habits and traditions of the past are rapidly disappearing. Emily can see that death is just around the corner and is beginning to prepare for this new phase. I'm not quite as old as she is, but I found that we had a lot in common.
smallwonder56 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Emily Alone is a well-written novel about a year in the life of Emily, widow and a "woman of a certain age". Over the course of the year we watch her dealing with feelings of concern and ambivalence about her children, grandchildren, dog and friends. She shares her fears and concerns about approaching her death and about being alone as she ages. There isn't a plot, per se, but a series of chapters detailing her experiences with various holidays and times of year. Well-written, yes. The book is often eloquent in describing the aspects of Emily's life. I couldn't shake the feeling, though, that a female author would have approached Emily somewhat differently. But, at the same time, I could see my mother and her mother in the thoughts she has and in the fretting that she does about the details of her life. It held my interest and I will be thinking about it in the coming months, wondering how similar my life will be as my son develops a life of his own.
pennwriter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This novel in which nothing major happens is nevertheless compulsively readable. It traces a few months in the life of an elderly widow, Emily Maxwell, who lives alone in the Highland Park part of Pittsburgh. After a medical scare involving her sister-in-law, Arlene (the only person who gives her regular companionship), Emily finds herself waking up again to a more courageous engagement with life. Arlene is fine. But Emily is changed.The detailing in the book is gorgeous. You feel you are there with Emily at church, at the hospital, gardening in her backyard, buying a new car, listening to classical music, and engaged in dozens of other tasks. Emily, Alone at times reminded me of Evan S. Connell's masterpieces Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge.Emily, Alone is not as good as Connell's books because it lacks their insight into character. It didn't matter to me. O'Nan depicts the richness of ordinary events with skill and grace.
mckait on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
We all have one. A friend that just rambles on and on and on about things that are of zero interest to us, but earthshaking to them. We listen and nod and smile, because it is the kind thing to do. Eventually, we pat them on the shoulder, or kiss them on the cheek,wish them well and go on our way. We do it because we care about them. I did not care about Emily or any of her friends, thoughts or meals. The only good thing I can say about this one, is that he didn't kill the dog. I have read and enjoyed books by this author in the past, and expected to like this one, but seriously, ten pages in and it was stilla litany of Pittsburgh streets and landmarks. I get it! It's Pittsburgh!NOT recommended..
GCPLreader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Emily, Alone is a lovely novel of the mundane life of an elderly Pittsburgh widow who lives alone. Whether fussing at her aged dog, nervously riding shotgun with her best friend, or patiently awaiting her children's phone calls on Mother's Day, Emily keeps herself busy with life's quotidian affairs while always listening to classical music in the background. Stewart O'Nan gets all the details right and never feels the need to fancy up the story with complexity. Each short chapter sheds just a little more light on such a simple life. No doubt you will see in Emily the elderly women of your family as I did. So evocative, so ordinary, and yet, such an impact.
Copperskye on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Emily of Emily, Alone is the family matriarch last seen in O'Nan's Wish You Were Here. Now, seven years after the events of that book, Emily lives alone with her extraordinarily old dog, Rufus, ventures out with her sister-in-law, Arlene, waits for visits from her children, and wryly ruminates about her life. It is O'Nan's skillfully beautiful and thoughtful prose that turns this simple storyline into such a charming and poignant book. It was easy to see glimpses of my own mother and family throughout.Stewart O'Nan is one of my favorite authors. Although I haven't read everything he's written, I've loved the ones I have read (with the exception of Last Night at the Lobster which didn't really work for me). It's not necessary to read Wish You Were Here to enjoy Emily, Alone but I recommend it, too.
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Before you are allowed to post a review of this novel, I¿m going to have to ask you to present an official id. An official id with your dob on it. I¿m sorry, but I just don¿t think a person under fifty can really appreciate this book and I¿m not sure those of you under fifty would have the patience to read a book where the biggest plot points are repairing a scratch on her new car.Emily is an elderly widow, in the last years of her life. Her family, except for an elderly sister-in-law, lives far away and seldom visits. Her friends are rapidly dying off. The highlights of Emily¿s week are Wednesdays when the maid comes in to clean and to eating at an inexpensive diner using discount coupons with her sister-in-law. Emily both enjoys her life and finds it more difficult each day to do the simple tasks she needs to do. I found this book to be a lovely picture of a small life well lived. Here¿s a tiny sample:¿A week later, floundering, as was her habit in the wake of their leaving, she took Rufus out for his constitutional one bright, chilly morning only to discover, on the slate square of sidewalk directly in front of their steps, like a hex or a warning, a pair of black spary-painted arrows pointing downhill, bracketing the number 392.She peered around at the empty lawns and driveways and porches, as if whoever was responsible were watching. Rufus looked up at her, wondering why they¿d stopped.She would have suspected gang graffiti, which had been a problem in the alley behind Sheridan, except it was small and artlessly done. Its sloppiness looked official, the harbinger of some public works project, a new sewer line or fiber-optic cable that might intrude on her summer. Besides marring her front walk, the inscrutable numerals promised a chaos she was powerless to stop, and sent her off up Grafton, frowning at her bad luck.¿
bearette24 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Interesting book about an 80-year-old woman in Pittsburgh, living with her dog. The title was a little too bleak in my opinion. The story itself is mostly optimistic. O'Nan also does a credible job writing from a female point of view. The pacing was a little deliberate, but enjoyable.
rkepulis on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Emily is an elderly lady reminiscing about the past, concerned about the future and how much of it there is left, and, of course, the present, in which she sullenly wallows about her family and a friend or two who simply don't live up to her expectations. At the same time, she realizes her own short-comings, and tries to reconcile those with the short-comings of her family, real or imagined. This book captures the process of aging beautifully, in many cases making observations and describing situations that truly hit the mark. A must read for anyone with elderly parents.
msf59 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Emily Maxwell is in her early 80s, living in a suburb of Pittsburg, and she¿s, well¿alone. Actually, she has the faithful company of her aging dog, a good friend Arlene and her grown children, who both live out of state.This is a quiet look, at a person¿s life, with all the mundane details, that fill out one¿s day. Emily examines her past, her flaws, her triumphs and efficiently prepares for a dwindling future.O¿ Nan perfectly captures, the steady rhythms and everyday dialogue of people in their twilight years. It is deliberate in it¿s pacing, not many fireworks, but it envelops the reader in it¿s tranquil beauty.
nyiper on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had to read the first book, Wish You Were Here, before I read this one and I need to groan, just a little. On the one hand, it's fascinating to see all of the detail that O'Nan includes. You definitely get to know his characters, even, as in real life, you maybe don't like everything you get to know about them! He actually succeeds, I think, in giving a very realistic picture of an older person, all alone in her own home as a widow. Not my favorite book in any sense of the word but it was "interesting...."
vancouverdeb on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Emily Maxwell is an 80ish widow living on her own in her family home. Over time, Emily has lost her confidence in driving, and relies on her sister - in - law, Arlene, to drive Emily when she needs to get out. Emily's life changes when Arlene has a spell and ends up in hospital - and Emily bravely begins to drive again. This is slow moving book, with much refection by Emily on her past, her future, and her family, with whom she has some challenging relationships. More than anything, this is a thoughtful, insightful look into what growing old and having to contemplate the end of one's life might be like. As I read about Emily's concern's about her children, their lack of interest in her, I could not help but think of the elderly people in my life and how challenging life must be for them. Prior to reading this book, I don't think I fully understood or empathized as much as I could. Emily's days and weeks are those of once a week lunch dates, wondering if she will outlive her dog, attending funerals of her friends, going to church, being cheered by the once a week visit of her house cleaner. While this book may sound boring, truly it is a remarkable book in the attention to detail and the author's ability to bring to our attention to the all too common invisible elderly people that surround us . Stewart O'Nan sensitively and thoughtfully portrays the challenges and small joys of growing old.Highly recommended. 4 stars.
michaelbartley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really liked this very quite but thoughtful novel about an woman that is getting to the end of her life. no big drama points no huge events just her living her life in the best way she can. the character if thoghtful and reflective. she is a good person that lived a good life
rmckeown on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A couple of years ago, I read a curious and interesting little novel by an author I had never heard of. When I met O¿Nan at a conference and got a copy of his newest novel, I was eager to try him again. Emily, Alone is a quiet, earnest story of ordinary people going about their daily lives, trying to manage the vagaries of existence as senior citizens.Emily Maxwell is a widow, and she lives alone with her aging dog, Rufus. Her children are grown with families of their own, and Emily lives for and from one visit to the next. Her best friend is her slightly crusty sister-in-law, Arlene. Together they lament the changes they face in growing old and share a routine of lunches, dinners at the club, and miscellaneous errands.Set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the landscape O¿Nan describes seems comfortably familiar. I grew up at the other end of the state and only made a couple of brief visits to the Steel City, but Emily¿s experiences mirror many of my own.One childhood memory I vividly recall matches O¿Nan¿s description precisely. Emily and Arlene are driving by the old Nabisco plant, which is being converted into condos. O¿Nan writes, ¿The real shame was that, winter or summer, when the plant was running, as you drove by you could smell them baking, even with your windows closed. They made Ritz crackers, and the warm buttery scent surrounded the place like a cloud. ¿ In the Spring, ¿ you could stand with your lemonade and ¿ see the steam rising from the factory and practically taste the air¿ (10). I remember my Dad would detour on a trip home just to drive past the Nabisco plant on Roosevelt Boulevard. I can still smell it.Another memory of mine involves her son, Kenneth, who signs off each phone call to his mother with, ¿All righty.¿ Must be a Pennsylvania thing. Of course, every Sunday I lament the arrival of the Waco Trib. ¿Stripped of its advertising, the [Pittsburgh] Post-Gazette was criminally thin¿ (53). Emily also surveys the ¿obituaries, and is relieved to find no one she knew. She noted those close to her age and younger, but refused to brood on them. She didn¿t want to be one of those old ladies obsessed with death, hearing it in every tick of the clock and creak of the floorboards¿ (53). My favorite line, however, is, ¿People should give gifts because it made them happy. There should be no obligation involved, no guilt¿ (129). Another Pennsylvania thing perhaps?While this might seem a tad depressing, it is anything but. The novel floats on an undercurrent of humor. Emily is an interesting, bright woman with a strong will. She has her routines, and they keep her active. She worries about Arlene, her neighbors, her daughter Margaret, her son Kenneth, the grandchildren, loyal Rufus, of course, and her preparations for the inevitable. I won¿t reveal the twist in the last chapter, but it has me thinking. A third novel could have a neat little opening to resolve this riddle so tiny it could easily be missed.I learned this novel is actually a sequel to an earlier work, Wish You Were Here. I¿ll be tracking that one down in the coming days! 5 stars.--Jim, 5/14/11
ethel55 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
O'Nan really knows how to delve into the minutae of life and make us so a part of his character's lives that we can't help but want to read more. Emily Maxwell actually blooms in this novel. After her sister-in-law Arlene(and most constant companion next to Rufus the dog) has an "episode" at the buffet at the Eat n' Park, Emily's role in their relationship takes a new turn. Now she's the one in the driver's seat. Whether buying a new car or planning out each day's errands, Emily takes control of each day. With O'Nan's help, we are witness to the intimate details of the waning days of Emily's life.
deborahk on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Who are you Stewart O'Nan and why would you write such a brave personal book about an aged woman in Pittsburgh? Didn't anybody ever tell you that nobody cares about women over 50? Emily Alone is an astounding book, nothing really happens in it, but as Emily progresses through a year of her life, you hear her most intimate thoughts, the very thoughts that you yourself have about people and situations -- the minor irritations and second thoughts -- and in the end, you have a life!! That is life. Thank you Stewart O'Nan, I will definately read more by you.
ccayne on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
O'Nan excels at shining a light on ordinary lives and making them memorable. He does that here for Emily, a woman who has outlived her husband and her best friend and through a happy accident begins to expand her world when she takes up driving again, even buying a new blue Subaru. Emily loves to garden, listen to classical music and has a sweet relationship with her incorrigible, always hungry dog, Rufus. I find O'Nan to be a quiet and honest writer and that is evident here as Emily reflects on relationships throughout her life, particularly those with her children and grandchildren. I agree with other reviewers in that this is most likely to appeal to those over 50.
Gary10 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
No one does contemporary human relations in the US better than O'Nan. In O'Nan's skilled hands, the main character Emily, an aging, widow with lots of memories and little in the way of excitement, makes a fascinating read. O'Nan shines the light on the main character and the social tendrils that connect her to the world and in so doing shines the light also on all of our human relationships. A page turner where almost nothing major happens.