Emily, Alone is the story of several months in the life of Emily Maxwell, an 80-year-old widow in Pittsburgh. On the surface this is a simple story of the day-to-day activities of an elderly woman and a rare glimpse into a phase of life that is usually ignored in fiction (and popular culture in general). Stewart O'Nan unapologetically invites us to enjoy Emily as she works in her garden, goes to lunch at the Eat 'n Park buffet, and argues good-naturedly with her sister-in-law Arlene. But wait, there's more.
When the book opens, Emily is at a crossroads. Her car is unreliable. Should she give up driving altogether? Or should she buy a new car? Should she allow her life to become narrower? Or should she hang on to her mobility and independence?
How much further can we take this analysis? Should Emily start down the dark cellar steps to the basement of death? Or push forward out the front door into the sunshine of life? When you hold that metaphor in your head the whole book takes on much greater meaning.
Emily, Alone is also Emily, Alive. Her smallest acts are infused with significance... or they are not! O'Nan allows us both interpretations all along. I loved this book and think it holds a far broader appeal than you might think, given a cursory plot description. O'Nan writes beautifully about both the mundane and the momentous parts of life. It's a real gift.
I failed to realize that this book is a sequel to O'Nan's Wish You Were Here, from 2002, which I haven't read. It didn't seem to matter. A few times I felt as if some of the relationships in Emily, Alone could have been more developed (that of Emily and her daughter Margaret, for example), but that was probably the only side effect of starting with the sequel.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.