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.)
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
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.
[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
…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