25 October, 2021

LitStack Pick: Our Favorite Fall Fiction

Emily Alonehttp://stewartonan.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/emily_paper.jpg?w=640&resize=284%2C424
Stewart O’Nan

One of my favorite books about someone in the autumn of their life is EMILY, ALONE, by Stewart O’Nan. Emily Maxwell is an 80-year-old widow striving to navigate her senior years. Beginning just prior to Thanksgiving 2009, the story takes us through the next nine months of Emily’s life, trudging through the bleakness of a typical Pittsburgh winter, into the thrill of spring, and the hope of summer. She has lost her husband Henry and more recently her best friend, Louise. Attending funerals has become a common social event for Emily. Her two adult children and four grandchildren live in distant states. Emily only sees them on occasional holidays and an annual summer vacation to Chautauqua. Like so many older folks, Emily is lonely, only her aged spaniel Rufus a constant companion. Her day-to-day existence consists of predictable routine. Tuesdays, Emily and Arlene, her sister-in-law, go to Eat’n Park for the breakfast buffet. Wednesdays, her housekeeper comes to clean. On Sundays, Emily goes to church. She listens to classical music, does the daily crossword, eats, cares for Rufus, and sleeps. Emily relies heavily on her sister-in-law. But early in the story, at the Eat’n Park breakfast buffet, Arlene has a stroke, forcing Emily to muster some independence and assume a care taking role. Purchasing a new car on her own is a major milestone for this woman who spends most of her time living in the past, fearing the future, or worrying about her children. Her daughter is a recovering alcoholic with relationship problems. Her son, though dutiful to his mother, is married to a strong woman who doesn’t get along with Emily. All four grandchildren have issues which confound Emily. There’s nothing particularly special about Emily. She’s an ordinary old woman. Yet we all know an Emily, whether she’s a mother, grandmother, great aunt, friend. The author manages to create joy and life in the merely mundane. Because there are so few people left in her life, O’Nan expertly transforms the constants in Emily’s existence, namely Rufus and the city itself, into well-developed characters. O’Nan knows the city of Pittsburgh well and this intimacy fulfills Emily’s need for consistency and familiarity. One might think a book about growing old couldn’t possibly have a happy ending, but O’Nan graciously ends this story with hope and optimism.

-Angie Dilmore

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