Emily, Alone

The elderly widow, soldiering on alone after her husband's death, long after her children have grown and moved away, may not be the stuff of high drama, but it contains a mother lode (so to speak) of rich material. And why not? Who better to delve into issues of mortality and values than those nearing the end who, ironically, have plenty of time on their hands for deep reflection? These women maintain rich inner lives even as their worlds contract.

 

Often, as in Clyde Edgerton's hilarious Walking Across Egypt (1987)—a personal favorite—plots turn on an unexpected connection between a dowager and a troubled youngster. But in Stewart O'Nan's Emily, Alone, a welcome follow-up to his 2002 novel, Wish You Were Here, the emphasis, as the title suggests, is Emily, toute seule, determined to uphold standards and maintain discipline even as her world erodes.

 

O'Nan's novels, including The Good Wife, which also convincingly captures a woman's perspective, and Last Night At the Lobster, often focus on blue-collar America. Emily, born in 1931 and rescued from the sticks by her marriage to Pittsburgh engineer Henry Maxwell, is financially well-off enough to help out her struggling middle-aged children. Wish You Were Here first introduced her a year after Henry's death, grappling with family issues—her daughter Margaret's alcoholism and broken marriage and her son Kenneth's fractured dreams—during a gathering at the Maxwells' beloved cottage on Lake Chautauqua in western New York before finalizing its sale.

 

Emily, Alone takes place six years later. Nearing 80, Emily is still going strong both mentally and physically. She still misses the man who "knew the 18-year-old lifeguard she used to be, and the fashionable grad student, the coltish young mother." She continues to live alone in her meticulously kept Pittsburgh house with her portly, gassy, extremely aged spaniel, Rufus, who according to my calculations, must be nearing a record-breaking 20.

 

The emptiness in Emily's life is compounded by the distance of her family and the recent death of her best friend. Her closest remaining companion is her never-married sister-in-law Arlene, a retired schoolteacher who, despite her alarming driving, is the designated chauffeur on their outings to art and flower shows, club dinners, and, increasingly, funerals. When Arlene suffers a small stroke during their weekly pilgrimage to the Eat 'n Park's two-for-one breakfast buffet, it's a wake-up call to Emily, galvanizing her to crank up Henry's outsized Chevrolet. To her surprise, driving makes her feel "part of something larger again." Her children are shocked when she purchases her first car ever—a Subaru wagon—after careful research on Henry's old computer.

 

Not much happens in Emily, Alone—which is not to say, of course, that the novel isn't full of interest. Like Evan S. Connell's indelible Mrs. Bridge, Emily, Alone deftly (and more lovingly) captures the texture of the thoughts and days of a comfortable American woman who has outlived her primary role as a wife and mother—how a crossword puzzle is rationed to last all week and small chores such as distributing tissue boxes around the house or writing thank you notes assume enlarged importance. Emily is all too aware of her static situation, most keenly feeling "her own inertia, her life no longer an urgent or necessary business" during "that gray time of day just before the school buses rolled."

 

The strength to endure such an attenuated life proves hardest during the long Pittsburgh winter, through which Emily sustains herself with anticipation of gardening and the promise of holiday visits from Kenneth and Margaret and her four grandchildren, which are at once disturbingly disruptive to her solitary routines yet also all too brief. The highlight of her year, eagerly awaited for months, remains her annual summer visit to Lake Chautauqua with her whole family gathered, now reduced to a single week.

 

O'Nan beautifully evokes a woman who "prized, above all, self-reliance" yet recognizes that she's "outgrown most of her earthly desires," with the pointed exception of wishing she could see more of her children and grandchildren. Emily is an endearing character, fussy yet unusually self-aware and sanguine about her own mortality. She struggles to hold her criticism in check, not just of others—including Mr. Impatient/ Mr. Fatty/ a.k.a. Rufus—but of herself. The result is 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."

April 19: "What you see first, after the starting gun's crack, is a column of bobbing runners, thousands of them, surging downhill..."

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