By Stewart O’Nan
(Penguin (Non-Classics), Paperback, 9780143120490, December 2011, 272pp.)
The Short of It:
A wonderful, poignant follow-up to Wish You Were Here.
The Rest of It:
When I read Wish You Were Here back in March, I expected to love the writing because so many have gushed about O’Nan’s work, but I didn’t expect to fall in love with this family and that is exactly what I did. The surprise here is that they aren’t all that lovable! There is some dysfunction and of course drama with the oldest adult children, but they are painted with a firm brush and so real, I felt as if I could easily pass one of them on the street. Wish had them all sharing a cabin by the lake over summer vacation. Emily Alone is Emily Maxwell, back home, a few years older and well…alone.
This is by far the more challenging of the two to write. It had to be! With the lake as a backdrop in Wish, and all those kids keeping everyone busy, there was a lot to write about and it took time to know each of the characters. In this book, Emily is at home, doing what she does every day which includes talking to her dog Rufus, getting the mail, and reading her book. She frets about her car’s dead battery, going out in the rain and spends her day adding items to a list that continues to remind her that her days are numbered. Although in perfect health, she goes through the year thinking that is may be her last. As an elderly widow, it certainly could be.
Technically, Emily has the company of her sister-in-law Arlene to spend her days with, but Arlene’s health is beginning to show signs of failure and all of their friends are slowly dying off. What Emily lives for, is time with her family. Thanksgiving and Christmas are holidays which become even more important to her as the years pass, and this particular year is no exception. She still remembers her husband fondly. His presence is still felt in the house, but Emily knows that soon, she will be with him whether she likes it or not.
As I was reading, I found myself thinking about my own mortality and what family means to me and how so often I go through the day not really feeling any particular way and how the days just run together. Not Emily. For her, as mundane as her day may sound, it all means something to her. Each day has importance and that’s an important reminder for anyone.
How is it that O’Nan can center an entire book around normal, day-to-day activities and still make it thought-provoking, poignant and interesting to read? Seriously, the man amazes me. This is absolutely a “quiet” sort of book. There are no huge plot points to shake things up but there is humor, genuine angst and a fondness for these characters that is surprising as much as it is welcoming.
Emily Alone was a real treat. I have Last Night at the Lobster from the library so I’m sure I will dive into that this weekend.
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