Eight years have passed since we last met Emily Maxwell in Wish You Were Here. In that leisurely book, author Stewart O’Nan took twice the length to tell the story of the family’s final week-long vacation at their Chautauqua summer home, bouncing the narration between all nine viewpoints of the main players. Coming in at less than half the page count, Emily Alone is a brisk telling of nearly a year in the life of the matriarch. The title hints at the bittersweet story of an aging woman living alone, reflecting on her past while acknowledging her diminishing days in the future, but it also refers to the book’s point of view. While all the Maxwells make an appearance in the sequel, this is Emily’s story alone.
Emily’s life has settled into a routine, much of it spent with her sister-in-law Arlene. Her days are punctuated by classical music on the radio, conversations with the dog, and honest and amusing details that O’Nan gets just right. Emily spends months in anticipation of her children and grandchildren visiting and then quickly becomes irritated by their invasion of her space. Her expectation and subsequent critique of thank you cards and systematic method for distributing a supply of Kleenex about the house had me chuckling. The Pittsburgh setting was an added bonus, a pleasant return to a location I visited a few years ago; it was fun to spend time with Emily, out-and-about in her town.
O’Nan’s trademark is simple, striking prose. In Emily Alone, every chapter reads with the strength of a short story; when stitched together they are an enjoyable account of an ordinary life well worth the reader’s attention. Despite moments of sadness, regret, and the inevitable aches and pains of aging, there’s an underlying hopefulness that buoys what could easily have been a depressing tale about the sunset years of life.
As with Wish You Were Here, O’Nan’s characters are so vividly realized that I believe them to be real, out there in the world living their lives. I think of them often, wondering what they’re up to and how they’re getting on.