Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan

“She could not stop these visitations, even if she wanted to. They plagued like migraines, left her helpless and dissatisfied, as if her life and the lives of all those she’d loved had come to nothing, merely because that time was gone, receding even in her memory, to be replaced by this diminished present. If it seemed another world, that was because it was, and all her wishing could not bring it back.”

Earlier this year, I read and enjoyed Stewart O’Nan’s novel, The Odds. I particularly liked the insights into the power politics of the damaged marriage plagued with debt and infidelities, and although the novel wasn’t perfect (I didn’t like the ending), I knew that this was an author I’d ‘discovered’ and one I’d return to soon. So that brings me to Emily Alone (recommended by commenter Pris as her favourite Stewart O’Nan), a wonderful novel I picked up without realising that it is a sequel to Wish You Were Here. After finishing the novel, I hope there’s a third–a follow-up to Emily Alone as I want to read more about this character’s life.

This is the story of a woman who lives alone with an elderly Springer Spaniel for companionship, and of course, the woman in question is Emily–an elderly widow whose two children, daughter Margaret and son Kenneth live in other states, stay in touch mainly by the telephone, and return for the occasional holiday visit. Neither relationship is satisfying and each is fraught with its own difficulties. Emily’s life is still centered around her children, so she’s inevitably left feeling disappointed by the interactions.  Margaret, divorced & the single mother of two, is involved with a series of men and is continually wrestling with various financial problems that require bailout.

Too often she acted as if Emily’s calls were an inconvenience, as if she were keeping her from urgent business. As a teenager she’d been distant and secretive, then for years as an alcoholic, hiding her sickness from everyone. Emily expected her to change after rehab, for the two of them to admit their mistakes and become closer, yet she still held Emily off, mistrustful, as if her own mother’s interest in her life was suspect.

Kenneth is a good, devoted son, but his time and energy is mostly given to his wife, Lisa’s, side of the family. Emily and Lisa have no relationship to speak of, “they’d never gotten along,” and “over the years their mutual dislike had calcified, their relationship fixed and incomplete.” Subtle battlelines are drawn between Lisa and Emily and slights continue. This year, for example, Lisa invites Emily to join her family at the Cape for Thanksgiving “belatedly, knowing she wouldn’t have time to make arrangements.”

The story follows a period of less than a year in Emily’s life–from Thanksgiving to the following summer, and while not a great deal happens, the minutiae of life is recorded, and we get the sense of just who Emily is, her routine, and her disappointments. While Emily is a wonderfully drawn character, she is not without her faults, but more of that later.

The novel begins with Emily on a November Tuesday waiting for her sister-in-law Arlene to arrive. This is the day of their weekly outing to Eat’n Park armed with a coupon for the “two-for-one breakfast buffet.” The weekly trip is one of the highlights of Emily’s routine–even though she dreads Arlene’s driving.

It wasn’t far–a few miles through East Liberty and Point Breeze and Regent Square on broad streets they knew like old friends-but the trip was a test of Emily’s nerves. Arlene’s eyes weren’t the best, and her attention to the outside world was directly affected by whatever conversation they were engaged in. When she concentrated on a thought, she drove more slowly, making them the object of honking, and once, recently, from a middle-aged woman who looked surprisingly like Emily’s daughter Margaret, the finger.

Emily’s husband, Henry, used to do all the driving, and for several years after his death she negotiated a familiar geographical “triangle” composed of trips to the supermarket, the library and the bank. Now the car sits unused and “decommissioned”  in the garage, yet one more piece of evidence of the different sort of life she led. Emily’s life changes, however, when she’s forced by circumstance to begin driving again.

Over the course of the novel, the holiday season comes and goes, children and grandchildren swoop in to visit, and neighbourhood houses are sold. Also over this time period, a few of the elderly people in Emily’s circle die, and she’s left with memories of the relationships she had and the full, rich life she and her husband led in the once-vibrant neighbourhood. The days of energetic family barbeques and parties and over. Now when Emily meets up with old acquaintances, there’s  a running tally kept of those who still survive:

The talk turned to falls, a favorite topic, and timely, with winter coming on, ice their mortal enemy. Jean Daly had slipped in her kitchen and broken her hip and now her children were trying to move her to a home. The horror with which Lorraine delivered the story annoyed Emily. It was the ultimate cautionary tale, the moral being Don’t fall, as if they were made of glass. In a sense they were-their fragility was irrefutable, medically proven-and yet Emily detested the inevitable rundown of accidents and tragedies, the more fortunate clucking their tongues and counting their blessings, all the while knowing it was just a matter of time. She didn’t need to be reminded that she was a single misstep from disaster, especially here, without Henry, surrounded by the survivors of their earlier life.

Some of Emily’s memories focus on her best friend, Louise who died a few years before, and other memories recall her life with Henry. In one scene she’s listening to a record and remembering a trip she made with Henry to Britain and a day spent at Coventry cathedral.

Beneath the murky opening theme, church bells tolled, and she pictured the cathedral, the bare yews reaching over the chancel, the spire rising into the sky. Somewhere downstairs there were albums filled with Henry’s pictures of that day, and the next, when it had rained and the pub Louise had recommended was closed. As the horns and then the chorus entered, Emily looked up from her Land’s End catalog, squinting, as if trying to remember something elusive, but the music was just music now, recorded voices and tympani booming from the stereo. There was nothing she wanted to buy. The models all seemed too pleased with themselves, as if they’d discovered an easier way of life. She flipped through the pages, wondering when Margaret would call, if at all. 

Emily is not without her faults. She has a tendency to fuss, and it doesn’t take a great deal to upset the calm order of her world. In one scene, for example, she frets over a team of gardeners sent to prepare a house that’s up for sale. She notes the coffee cups brought by the workers and “wondered how many of the cups would find their way into her bushes.”  She frets over a number painted on the pavement outside of her house. She canvases the neighbourhood looking for other similar marks and then spends hours on the telephone with the city suspecting that a “public works project” is planned. Anticipating “a chaos she was powerless to stop, ” she becomes fixated on the number, obsessively checking on it as though “it might magically disappear.”

Although Emily’s routine may seem dull, she has a rich inner life (reads Thomas Hardy) and attends an art show and the annual flower show which heralds in spring:

They came every year, like pilgrims. Women of a certain age, her mother called them, a polite way of saying old bags. For months they’d been saving the date, the invitation to members stuck to the fridge, pinned to the kitchen bulletin board. This was the real beginning of spring, the gathering of the tribe. survivors, believers, they flocked from across the city, made the trek in to gritty Oakland from the tony suburbs, curling around the Gothic rocket ship of the Cathedral of Learning, back past the library and Flagstaff Hill to the edge of Schenley Park. There might be snow on the golf course, the trees bare, but inside the peaked glass palace of Phipps Conservatory, the world was in bloom.

Emily’s memories are her constant companions, and there are times when the past seems more vivid than the present. This of course raises one of the novel’s central questions: what do you make of life when the best of it seems to be over?

That was how time passed-waiting through everything else to do the things you wanted. How little fell into that category now; easter, her garden, Chautauqua. She thought there would be more to live for.

Ultimately Emily, Alone is an optimistic novel. Adversity gets Emily out of her rut and behind the wheel of a brand new Subaru, and surprised at her own extravagance, she hopes she’s not “like one of those middle-aged men who buys a Porsche.” With gentle humour, Stewart O’Nan details the inner life of this elderly woman, a woman who has sustained a substantial number of losses, and yet manages to find joy and hope in daily life.

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8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, O'Nan Stewart

8 responses to “Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan

  1. I wasn’t aware this is a sequel to Wish You Were Here. I’ve got that, so will read it before this one. It sounds very good. I don’t need a lot to go on in a novel when the main character’s inner life is this rich.

  2. Many moons ago, I read ‘The Speed Queen’ by this author, but I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember much about it other than it featured a woman on death row. Rather different to this novel – which does sound intriguing.

  3. Sounds great, something I’d like. How old is Emily? There aren’t many novels with fair pictures of elderly people.

    PS : “what do you make of life when the best of it seems to be over?” Read, if your eyes will allow it.

    • In Wish You Were Here, Emily is in her 70s. In Emily, Alone (7 years later, I think) she says at point that she says something about never wanting to be 80, so she might be about that, I suspect.

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