The author is Stewart O'Nan. O'Nan is a brilliant writer. He is a master of making small, ordinary lives important, meaningful and unexpectedly eventful. In his newest novel Emily Alone he expands a character from an earlier novel, Emily Maxwell the family matriarch in Wish You Were Here, into a heroine.
There is nothing remarkable about Emily or her life. Emily is 80 years old. She has out lasted a husband and raised a family. She is healthy for her age and financial secure. She even has good relationships with her two children and grandchildren. Maybe ‘good’ is a strong word. How about we say they have we’ve-all-grown-up-and-we’re-going-to-get-along relationships.
Emily spends her days within an ever decreasing circle. Her friends are passing away at a good clip. If she could score frequent flier miles for attending funerals she could go around the globe. Her world isn’t just shrinking socially it’s also shrinking physically. Where she feels comfortable going and where she’s willing to go are on smaller and smaller lists. The urgencies of life are over for her. Emily doesn’t dwell on what is missing in her life. She grew up during the Depression and WWII complaining would not occur to her.
In O’Nan’s talented hands Emily is a real person. She’s thoughtful, smart, a bit judgmental, a good friend, funny, observant, a person you would want to spend time with. She is also someone who is coming to grips with the end of her life. There is no death wish in Emily but there is awareness that if the end isn’t in sight it’s just around the corner. A health crisis involving her sister-in-law Arlene and a new car bring Emily back out into a larger world and more self-questioning about her success and failure follow.
How do I convey what a dynamic novel this is? Should a novel where the main character spends time redistributing the open Kleenex boxes into busier rooms be a page turner? No but it is in Stewart O’Nan’s hands. He is a remarkable writer. He should be on bestseller lists all over the place. Read Emily Alone and be impressed, enlightened and enteratined.