Emily Maxwell is a widow. Her children live far away. Her only regular companion is her sister-in-law Arlene who accompanies her to their favorite breakfast buffet or to the museum. When Arlene is rushed to the hospital, Emily begins to grapple with what it means to be alone. What compels an old woman to continue living? What hope does she have for the rest of her life?
Wish You Were Here. In the former book, the Maxwell family converged on the summer house for one last time after the patriarch has died. Now Emily is back at her own home, figuring out what her life looks like without her husband.
Emily is a bit curmudgeonly, but Stewart O'Nan has carefully crafted a woman you can't help but love. Thank you notes are not something I particularly care about, but I found myself outraged along with Emily when her granddaughter didn't send her one. Her frustration about the Pittsburgh traffic or the children running through the museum seem perfectly reasonable.
There are not a lot of characters in this story. We meet Emily's sister-in-law, her cleaning lady, some neighbors, and her children. But perhaps the supporting character here is actually the city of Pittsburgh. Through Emily's eyes, we see a Pittsburgh of possibility and promise when she visited its country clubs as a young married woman. But we also witness the confusion of modern city life, exemplified by a spray-painted arrow painted in front of Emily's house that no city office will take credit for leaving.
There is wry humor to be found on these pages, but there is also deep grief as Emily attends funeral after funeral and watches the families on her street completely turn over. Her husband is gone, her children don't need her anymore, and she is back to her essence - who is Emily when she isn't a wife or a mother?
Emily, Alone is quiet and quotidian, but it is told simply and beautifully. There is a fine line between sentiment and saccharine, but that line is never crossed here. Emily is an unforgettable character and I will always be grateful that Stewart O'Nan brought her to brilliant life.
By Stewart O'Nan
Penguin Books December 2011
From my shelves