Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Book Review: Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan

Emily, Alone
By Stewart O'Nan

     Stewart O'Nan has an incredible ability to elevate the everyday lives of ordinary people and make them reason for celebration.  In Emily, Alone he renders nine months in the life of an average octogenarian and makes them fascinating.  He actually makes this woman's life an epic battle between the human spirit and age, infirmity, depression, disappointment and regret.  This story is reminiscent of the best of Anne Tyler, who also spins great stories from lives of everyday people.

     The book opens with Emily Maxwell wallowing in her widowhood, chagrined over the changes in her neighborhood and home town of Pittsburgh and longing for her younger days.  She is contemplating a Thanksgiving visit from her divorced daughter and two of her grandchildren:

"She could not stop these visitations, even if she wanted to.  They plagued her like migraines, left her helpless and dissatisfied, as if her life and the lives of all those she'd loved had come to nothing, merely because that time was gone, receding even in her own memory, to be replaced by the diminished present.  If it seemed another world, that was because it was, and all her wishing  could not bring it back."

     Emily relies on her sister-in-law Arlene for transportation as well as for moral support.  It is Arlene who listens to Emily's monologues about her underachieving and unappreciative offspring and Arlene who buoys her spirits when they are at their nadir.  Again reminding me of Anne Tyler, this author sets several key scenes within the confines of a car.  (Remember the wonderful car scenes in The Accidental Tourist"?)  Emily frets over Arlene's overly cautious driving and worries for both of their safety.  Then, a funny thing happens at the Eat and Park, a breakfast spot where Emily and Arlene eat once per week (with coupons in hand from the Sunday newspaper).  Arlene passes out in the middle of the buffet line and Emily is startled out of her doldrums.  Forced by Arlene's hospitalization to resurrect her husband's ancient Oldsmobile from the garage where it sat idle since his death, Emily rediscovers her independent spirit and begins to drive.  She finds that she has abilities which she thought were long gone.  She begins to take charge of her life again.

     The visit from her alcoholic daughter happens and Emily makes the best of it.  Emily surprises everyone when she trades her husbands old car for a new Subaru. One whole chapter is spent on Emily suffering from a cold.  This book is not a thrill-a-minute page turner, but the masterful writing and the gradual enlightenment of Emily Maxwell somehow holds the reader's interest and does make you want to find out what mundane occurrence Mr. O'nan can weave some magic into next.  On the night that daylight savings time goes into effect, Emily muses:

" Lying there with the false hour glowing over her shoulder, she reflected on the arbitrary, changeable nature of time, and how, at her age, she was almost free of it.  The idea pleased her, as if she'd discovered something elemental.  Springing ahead was an official admission that no clock could ever measure the rotation of the earth, or the earth around the sun, birth and death, the turning seasons, the thrust of new shoots.  Though she couldn't quite say why it was a comfort, floating in this unmapped, in-between state , she appreciated time being imaginary and malleable, as if, knowing its secret, she might loosen its hold on her.  But in the morning, when she woke, it was still dark out, and she was a full hour behind.  She had to hurry to get ready for church and then was late picking up Arlene."

   Towards the end of the story Emily decides to visit her husband's grave, something she hadn't done in years:

"She knew it was an illusion, the idea that he was here.  Henry wasn't one to linger.  His spirit or soul had flown, off to happily tackle whatever work was needed.  And yet, as she turned the last gentle curve and slowed, pulling to the side, she felt a flutter of anticipation comprised equally of excitement and dread, as if he might chastise her for being late."

     Buoyed by that trek, Emily next travels to her small hometown to visit the graves of her parents.  It is during this visit that Emily has an epiphany of sorts:

"She would be judged by how she lived her life, not how she wished it had been.  She accepted that completely.  She was painfully aware of her failings.  Every Sunday she confessed them, and while by no means clear, her conscience was no heavier than most, or so she hoped."

     Emily, Alone is a character study of the highest caliber.  Emily Maxwell becomes so familiar to the reader that she becomes your neighbor, your friend, your grandmother.  The reader cares what happens next, no matter how mundane.  You feel the pain as she culls her basement for items to donate to the church bazaar and decides to donate her husband's old luggage.  The smell of the leather and the monograms emblazoned on the largest suitcase evoke strong memories of exotic vacations.  You can feel her pain when the suitcases don't sell and are unceremoniously thrown in the church dumpster.  You share Emily's frustration when her long-time physician retires and she has to adapt to her new Pakistani internist.  The reader cares for this lovely old woman, even though most of the people in her world seem not to.  No review of Emily, Alone would be complete without a mention of Rufus, Emily's aging faithful hound dog.  Rufus is Emily's main companion, listens with her to classical music by the fire and pays attention to many of Emily's musings.  Rufus is, in a way, the anti-Emily.  As the months progress, Rufus gives in to his infirmities, spending more time sleeping in the sunlight and having more and more difficulty managing the stairs, both up to Emily's bedroom as well as out to the backyard to "do his business".  Rufus becomes very sedentary just as Emily is discovering her ability to cope with and overcome her physical obstacles. 

     This is a book to be savored, not raced through.  The author treats us to precise and evocative writing which is rarely encountered.  The characters here are believable, likable, entirely human and strangely familiar.    In the end, human spirit does not triumph over age, infirmity, depression, disappointment and regret as much as it learns to peacefully coexist with them.   Read Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan.  You will be glad that you did.

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