The Joy Of The Mundane In 'Emily, Alone'

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan
 
Emily, Alone
By Stewart O'Nan
Hardcover, 272 pages
Viking
List Price: $25.95
Read An Excerpt

It takes a deft hand to do justice to the ordinary. Most novelists don't even bother to try, which is why most novels are about a rip in the fabric of the routine. It's tough to find fiction ambitious enough to tackle the story of a run-of-the-mill job, a hum-drum family; but, if the mundane matters to you, then Stewart O'Nan is your man.

His 2007 novella, Last Night at the Lobster, chronicled the final shift at a chain restaurant that is shutting down, and it's the best story I've ever read about the meaning of commonplace work in people's lives. A few years earlier, O'Nan wrote a quietly best-selling novel called Wish You Were Here about a squabbling family gathering for its yearly vacation in the first summer after the death of its patriarch of the clan (though O'Nan would never resort to a pompous word like "patriarch"). Now, O'Nan has written a sequel to that earlier novel, called Emily, Alone, and it's a moody, lightly comic and absolutely captivating rendering of that most un-sensational of subjects: widowhood and old age.

You don't have to have read Wish You Were Here first before diving into Emily, Alone; I know because I read the novels in reverse order. Book reviewer responsibility aside, I read the earlier novel because I craved more time in the world that O'Nan has created here — the diligently achieved and now-fading upper-middle-class world of Emily Maxwell from Pittsburgh. Decades ago, Emily managed the class climb into the country club world of Pittsburgh by marrying Henry Maxwell. When this novel opens, Henry has been dead for over 10 years, and Emily, now 80, fervently wishes to hold on to her dignity as loneliness and death close in.

But, because Emily, Alone is written by O'Nan and not, say, Tolstoy, Emily's confrontations with the Infinite occur as she's carrying on with everyday chores: clearing out her messy basement; fighting off a cold and self-pity. In the first beautifully detailed chapter of the novel, Emily and her prickly sister-in-law, Arlene, drive off (oh so slowly) — as they do every week — to the Tuesday morning two-for-one breakfast buffet at the Eat 'n Park Restaurant. When they finally get there, Arlene keels over at the steaming hot breakfast bar, badly smacking her head on the sneeze guard. She has had some sort of a "spell" that requires her to remain in the hospital for a few days — and O'Nan does a wonderful job of evoking the excitement that this change in their shared schedule brings to Emily's life. Her daily visits even to the "oatmeal bareness" of the hospital afford conversation and community, and because the laid-up Arlene was always the driver, Emily now has to steel herself to pilot Arlene's bulky Taurus through the decaying streets of once familiar Pittsburgh neighborhoods. Eventually, Emily gets so cocky that she buys herself a new four-wheel-drive Subaru.

Stewart O'Nan's award-winning fiction includes Snow Angels, A Prayer for the Dying, Last Night at the Lobster and Emily, Alone. Granta named him one of America's Best Young Novelists. He lives in Pittsburgh.

Stewart O'Nan's award-winning fiction includes Snow Angels, A Prayer for the Dying, Last Night at the Lobster and Emily, Alone. Granta named him one of America's Best Young Novelists. He lives in Pittsburgh. Trudy O'Nan hide caption

itoggle caption Trudy O'Nan

None of these events is rendered "cute." O'Nan's glory as a writer is that he conveys the full force of the quotidian without playing it for slapstick or dressing it up as Profound. Listen to his language. About Emily's weekly phone conversations with her middle-age children and college-age grandkids, O'Nan says:

"Her sole wish, now, was to be closer to them. It was hard to follow their lives from a distance, to send out cards and letters and presents, to call week after week and then receive in return only the barest of news, grudgingly given and heavily censored."

And here's O'Nan describing Emily trying to fasten a necklace without her late husband's help:

"On formal occasions like tonight [Henry] would stand behind her like a valet ... She'd find him admiring her in the mirror, and while she discounted his adoration of her beauty — based, as it was, on a much younger woman — she also relied on it, and as time passed she was grateful for the restorative powers of his memory."

With economy, wit and grace, O'Nan ushers us into the shrinking world of a pleasantly flawed, rather ordinary old woman and keeps us readers transfixed by the everyday miracles of monotony.

Excerpt: 'Emily, Alone'

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan
 
Emily, Alone
By Stewart O'Nan
Hardcover, 272 pages
Viking Adult
List Price: $25.95

Love, Emily

She didn't want anything for Mother's Day, other than her children's happiness. The arrangement Kenneth sent was nice — Emily set it on the coffee table, where Rufus sniffed the pink asters as if they might be edible — but meant less to her than his call.

She didn't have to wait for it. Like every Sunday, she'd come back from coffee hour and was plowing through the Times when the phone rang. His reliability was a gift in itself, and if this eagerness to please could make him timid, and distant when he felt he'd failed, he was also like his father in that he would never purposely hurt anyone, a trait Emily, not blessed with an even temperament, respected and envied.

"Happy Mother's Day, Mom."

"Now it is." She thanked him for the flowers.

"Not my doing."

"Still, they're very nice. So, what's new in New England?"

Not a lot. Everyone was doing okay. After much discussion, Sam was registering for summer semester.

From there they branched off to more general topics, giving her a chance to share how tired she was of the election, and the desperate state of the world. He'd have to ask Arlene about the Pirates, she was done with their shenanigans. The weather was wet, but her garden was coming along. Rufus was still hanging in there. The Millers' was still for sale. As always, she felt she had no news to report, as if her life had reached a kind of stasis.

"All righty," he said, and "I love you, Mom," and "Happy Mother's Day" again before saying goodbye. She'd turned down the stereo to talk, and when she set the phone back in its charger, the house went quiet around her.

Margaret would call when she called. Emily had learned long ago there was no profit in trying to anticipate her, and dialed up the volume again and went back to the arts section, continuing with a review of the Emerson Quartet she'd been enjoying, but instead of imagining herself in the balcony at Lincoln Center, she found herself fretting about Sam, and then about Sarah, who'd lost her job in Chicago. The worst thing in the world for Sarah would be to move back in with Margaret — for both of them — and Emily wondered if she should offer to help, or whether, like so many of her overtures, it would be taken the wrong way.

As a mother, she couldn't say she'd done her best with Margaret, but she'd tried beyond the point where others might have reasonably given up. Henry had, worn down by the cycle of promises that turned out to be lies, the brief clean periods between treatment and relapse, the lost jobs and credit card debt. Though she understood it perfectly, his withdrawal from their daughter was perhaps the greatest sorrow in Emily's life. Through everything, she'd always included Margaret in their plans, knowing, often, in those terrible years, that her invitations would be ignored or flatly rejected, and when accepted, the results would be disastrous. For Emily, Margaret's absence was a sadness; for the rest of the family, a relief. Kenneth, like Henry, was embarrassed by her, as were Sarah and Justin, who seemed to have taken her cautionary example to heart, feeding themselves and getting good grades so they could escape to a more orderly life — but that was the past, Margaret would insist. She'd been sober nearly four years now. She liked to talk about a clean slate, and in some ways their relationship had changed, but in others it felt like the same struggle they'd waged since Margaret turned thirteen. While she was more open and affectionate — showily at times, as if in her gratitude she could no longer control her emotions — Emily suspected it wasn't entirely genuine. Likewise her constant references to making amends and surrendering to a higher power, when more than anything Emily wanted her to take responsibility for her life, past and present. The money troubles, the parade of boyfriends, the inability to follow through on all but the most immediate plans — these were the same problems that had plagued her forever.

Dismayed at the arc of her thoughts — today of all days — she folded the paper and took her cup and saucer into the kitchen for a refill. Gazing out the back door at the dripping trees as she waited for the kettle to warm, she wondered at the whole chain of continuity running back through her mother to her Grandmother Benton before her and down through Margaret to Sarah. Had her mother been as unhappy with her? Because they battled just as often and hard. In her later years she complained that Emily never visited, that they always had to visit Pittsburgh to see the grandchildren, an accusation Emily disputed bitterly, since it seemed she was always driving to Kersey. Always, never — their positions were absolute. The old house was a bungalow, and when she and Henry visited, they stayed in Emily's room, the rose-patterned wallpaper untouched since the Depression, the ceilings water-stained, and by the second day she was ready to leave. How many times did she have to win her freedom, and wasn't it unnatural to feel this way? Because she did love her mother. It was grueling, this confusion. She wished she could express this to Margaret — as if, just by being mothers and daughters, they were all caught in something larger, something ultimately not their fault.

She returned to Henry's chair, arranged the afghan over her lap and pulled the lamp closer so she could work on the puzzle, the bulb warming her, but within minutes pushed it aside, threw off the afghan and stood, waking Rufus. He watched her as she passed, headed upstairs, but didn't follow, and she was grateful. For what she was about to do, she needed privacy.

She climbed toward the second floor deliberately, head bowed, her eyes on the risers, certain she was making a mistake. Whether she was doing penance or indulging herself, she regularly performed this rite, pawing through her horde of treasure like a curator, knowing it would change nothing. Like Margaret with chocolate, she couldn't resist.

In her room she ceremoniously faced her dresser. It had been her mother's, salvaged from the old house and expensively refinished. The top drawer was shallow, a repository for baggage tags and travel alarms, shoehorns and passports. Her mother had kept everything, and, opening it after her death, Emily had been staggered. Much of the clutter dated from Emily's girlhood. It was here that she found her birth certificate, and her silver rattle, and her father's wallet. Among these keepsakes, tied like a gift with a yellow ribbon, was a bundle of hand-drawn cards Emily had forgotten making. Browned at the edges, her penciled hearts and flowers and cakes and houses celebrated the unalloyed joy of the only child. Here, in all seasons, were the smiling stick figures under a smiling sun. The first time she'd leafed through them she'd been abashed at not just her clumsy lettering but her earnestness. Love, Emily, they closed, over and over, abundant proof of her goodness and innocence, and yet when she revisited them, as she did now, she felt a strange regret, as if they'd been written by someone else. Her mother hadn't saved any of her other letters, only the program from her college graduation and her wedding announcement.

As if in imitation, the other packet Emily removed was fastened with a pink ribbon — Margaret's cards to her, in crayon but graced by the same wobbly hand and free sentiments. Side by side, they seemed evidence of a mysterious bond, as if she and her mother were destined to share the same fate. I LOVE YOU, Margaret had scrawled. Emily lingered over the words, wondering if the feeling behind them still held true after all these years, or was it just a fossil, the promise, like the child who'd written it, gone forever?

This was precisely the danger of having too much time to herself. She retied the packet and returned it to its niche, closed the drawer and descended again. She sat with her half-done puzzle, listening to Bach and the rain, fending off unprofitable thoughts, waiting, though she knew better, for the phone to ring, and then, when it finally did, felt relief.

"Happy Mother's Day," Margaret said.

"Why, thank you, dear. Happy Mother's Day to you too."

"I'm not your mother."

"And for that," Emily said, "you should be eternally grateful."

Excerpted from Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan. Copyright 2011 by Stewart O'Nan. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Books Featured In This Story

Wish You Were Here

by Stewart O'Nan

Paperback, 517 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Wish You Were Here
Author
Stewart O'Nan

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.