It’s nothing new that novels tend to capture the commercially attractive departures from normality that make a plot…a plot. There’s hesitation, and perhaps understandably, to showcase the mundane facets of American life, even to an audience intimately familiar with the culture. Stewart O’Nan, though, saw opportunity in the commonplace when he wrote “Emily, Alone,” a novel which proves that levity and impact are sometimes channeled through plotlines based not only on routine, but the everyday habits of an elderly woman.
“Emily, Alone” continues the story of Pittsburgh resident Emily Maxwell as introduced in the novel “Wish You Were Here,” in which our protagonist and her family are extended to the reader through an expressive tale of ephemeral togetherness. Understanding and appreciation of “Emily, Alone,” however, is in no way contingent upon completion of the first installment. O’Nan ensures that characters and storylines are adequately explored as to provide first time readers of the series a conduit to the tensions at play.
At 80 years of age, the widowed Emily is living out her remaining time on Earth while grappling with the real, interminable effects of loneliness and regret. Missing her children, grandchildren, husband, and old friends, she feels at times isolated, finding comfort in her relationships with Arlene, a supportive but emotionally distant sister-in-law, and Rufus, her dog and unconditional companion who she worries will fail to survive her. It’s difficult to ignore the theme of mortality that, in this work, truly echoes from cover to cover, but even death takes a backseat to life in the recurring preoccupations of Emily Maxwell.
Reflecting on her ascension from modest country living to high-society, urban sophistication, Emily realizes that despite her myriad, unexpected accomplishments, she’s often haunted by the errors of her past (the contrived rebellion, the emotional alienation,) all of which are subtle enough to seem real. As time marches and the inevitability of death looms, readers observe how Emily handles virtual seclusion in her remaining days-enjoying small pleasures, arranging her affairs, and perhaps involuntarily finding introspection a daily habit and resort.
Like its predecessor, “Emily, Alone” exemplifies O’Nan’s unique structural and stylistic preferences. Abandoning the traditional story arc that dominates in fiction, he achieves a kind of mundane delight that charms readers through its striking idiosyncrasy. While no discernable climax is present, each chapter builds upon the previous, offering details and insights into a character the audience can’t help but to love-in despite of, if not due to, her frequently dwelled upon quirks.
To be sincere, though, the lines of this novel don’t always read themselves. Due to the lack of action and climactic trajectory, enjoying “Emily, Alone” requires patience and a bit of tolerance for the seemingly needlessly mundane (the description of the flower show, for instance, proves less pertinent than exhaustive.) The meaning, though, generally lurks beneath the monotony, and for those willing to seek it out, O’Nan’s characterization and proclivity for details will attract and ultimately endear the reading audience. After all, it seems that all of us, regardless of our place in life, identify at least partially with Emily, who exudes human relatability in this realistic fiction.
Regardless, Emily as a character (and “Emily, Alone” as an exploration,) fills a void in American entertainment, telling the story of a senior citizen unapologetically, with no economic reservations. Which makes sense, given the popularity of “Wish You Were Here” and the confidence with which O’Nan pens this piece.
There’s a niche in modern literature for stories that are neither excessively generic nor experimental, but compensate for their inaction with emotional integrity. This book falls comfortably within it. Indeed, “Emily, Alone” may simply discuss life and ordinary struggles but, thanks to skillful narration, it does so extraordinarily.