After meeting author Stewart O’Nan, I was eager to delve into one of his books. I am a child raised by Pittsburgh-bred parents, having lived most of my childhood within a stone’s throw of Chautauqua Institution, and currently live and work near Ithaca, New York. All of these places I share with O’Nan – a Pittsburgh boy himself, an aficionado of the Institution, and an alumnus of Cornell University. Emily, Alone held particular interest for me, given its topic: an older woman living on her own in Pittsburgh, and coming to terms with what that means, both for her and her friends and family. Having watched my grandmother go through the same time of it, I was interested—though I’ll admit, concerned—to pick up the novel. I am a firm believer in breaking gender barriers, but am less convinced that the world is capable of consistently doing it well.
I should not have been concerned. O’Nan has a deft touch that makes the prose sweet and unassuming, without ever feeling forced. Emily Maxwell is as real a character as any who walked the page, dealing with very real problems in very real ways. There is no definitive action, and it’s hard to pin down a plot in the structure that we expect plots to be in. The life of an elderly woman has little room for any more action than buying groceries and walking the dog. It’s a series of short tales, with each chapter given its own title, that slowly walk through Emily’s life as she tries to come to terms with the fact that her world is aging around her – and so is she. Her family has grown apart, and as Emily muses on her own mortality, she starts to find her way back into the hearts of her children…and finds it more difficult than she’d hoped. The conclusion of the book is no great cliffhanger or spoiler, which I find suits the calm gentleness of the narrative. To end with a death or dramatic occasion would spoil the tranquility O’Nan had been building. Instead, he ends with a hopeful summer, and a family trip to a place they all love.
O’Nan’s familiarity with the Pittsburgh area and its inhabitants comes through with every word. He describes an Eat’n Park, and I can see the dining area even without having set foot in one in years. (Imagine how startling it was when I walked in one the other day, and realized how accurately I’d remembered!) The descrpition of Emily’s house reminded me of the family house in the Pittsburgh suburbs, where my grandparents lived – right down to the birds in the back yard and the steps down from the front door. Her relationships with her children, recalcitrant Margaret and unassuming Kenneth, brought back memories of my father and his brothers as they pieced together relationships with each other and with their parents. And in the early moments of the book, when Arlene has her attack in the restaurant, I could recall too easily the stories of my grandmother’s final illness, and my father’s stroke all in one. I’ve already told both of my parents (Pittsburgh born and bred, the both of them) that they need to read this book, because it’s like a chance to talk with my grandmother again.
It is a beautiful slice-of-life book, in an area of life that most of us are afraid to tread, let alone read or write about. O’Nan takes beautifully elongated sentences and drags them across the page like brush strokes, never hurried or rushed, just allowing us to go from place to place as Emily does. It is a perfect book for those quiet moments alone, with a cup of tea and some soft classical music, to enjoy and relax and imagine for a little while…and remember.