Category Archives: O’Nan Stewart

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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The Odds by Stewart O’Nan

“She said she’d never loved anyone but him and dissolved into tears, as if it were a new confession and not her usual grievance.”

The Odds from Stewart O’Nan is a prescient novel that explores a few days in the life of married couple Art and Marion Fowler. Why prescient? In middle age, Art  and Marion rode the wave of the economic boom, buying an old home which was priced above their means and then remortgaging it in order to fix it up. Now post boom, about to lose their house, buried in credit card debt, on the brink of filing bankruptcy and both of them unemployed, the novel begins with Art and Marion on a miserable bus trip to spend Valentine’s Day at Niagara Falls. While their mission is ostensibly for Art to win enough money at roulette with his “surefire” method to get out of debt, there’s a second mission afoot. Although they plan to divorce in order to hide assets, it’s their wedding anniversary, and Art hopes to convince Marion that he still loves her.

The final weekend of their marriage, hounded by insolvency, indecision, and stupidly, half secretly, in the never distant past ruled by memory, infidelity, Art and Marion Fowler fled the country. North to Canada. “Like the slaves,” Marion told her sister Celia. They would spend their last days and nights as man and wife as they’d spent the first, nearly thirty years ago, in Niagara Falls, as if, across the border, by that fabled and overwrought cauldron of new beginnings, away from any domestic, everyday claims, they might find each other again. or at least Art hoped so. Marion was just hoping to endure it with some grace and get back home so she could start dealing with the paperwork required to become for the first time in her life, a single-filing taxpayer.

Art books the “Valentine’s Getaway Special” and while I’d never intended to go and visit Niagara Falls, after reading The Odds, now I have plenty of reasons not to. This tawdry mini-vaca is “$249, inclusive of meals and a stake of fifty Lucky bucks towards table games” which probably sounded like a great bargain to Al when he booked it. Well it is a bargain I suppose if you don’t mind standing in line for hours, suffering food poisoning, and being herded around like cattle.

I’ve never understood the attraction to gambling, and the idea of the cheap package holiday which includes a casino has no appeal, but in spite of the negative (or even perhaps rather nastily because it) I was certainly committed to the trip along with Art and Marion. There’s an irony to all of this, of course, as Art and Marion have plunged into irreversible financial disaster, and yet Art is now, suddenly and rather too late, calculating just how much money the trip is “saving” them “in gas, not to mention parking.” Naturally the trip to Canada on the bus is miserable, and that’s just the beginning…. 

Al and Marion spent their honeymoon decades earlier at Niagara Falls. There’s something old and sad about a couple returning to the scene of the crime three decades later. I suppose that if the marriage is good, then perhaps the return would be a happy one, but in this case Al and Marion’s marriage is in the toilet, and memories of infidelity serve to wash up the detritus of the past. Not that this couple bicker. Instead they keep their thoughts mostly to themselves. Here’s Marion adroitly avoiding Al on the bus:

She addressed her mystery again, tilting it to the beam of light from the overhead console. She read two or three a week, the pile of cracked and yellowing paperbacks on her nightstand dwindling as the one on the marble-topped table by the front door grew until it was time to trade them in at the Book Exchange. “I’m reading,” she’d say when his hand was advancing under the covers, and he would retreat.  

The plot tracks Al and Marion’s tired attempts at sightseeing. Everywhere they turn, they’d surrounded by honeymooners grappling each other, passionately, and no matter what they do, they can’t escape themselves or the painful memories of infidelity:

It was common enough for her to bring up the subject on special occasions, as if she’d been waiting for the perfect moment, lobbing it into the middle of her birthday dinner or their anniversary. She had a genius for self-pity that defeated even his. He liked to believe that by act of will and the passage of time he’d gotten beyond thinking of Wendy every day, while Marion, who’d never met her, tended her memory like a widow.

While Al imagines that the impending divorce is a mere formality, Marion sees it as a permanent change, so we read their conflicting versions of the future as well as their bitter memories of the past. When it comes to the intricate details of a troubled marriage, Stewart O’Nan has the inner politics down.

“Want a neck rub?” Art offered.

“I’m just tired of sitting.” She shifted and went back to her book, ignoring him again.

These little rebuffs, he would never get used to them. Years ago he’d come to accept that no matter how saintly he was from then on, like a murderer, he would always be wrong, damned by his own hand, yet he was always surprised and hurt when she turned him down. Gently, perhaps, but flatly, straight to his face, dismissing him as if he were a servant, his assistance no longer needed.

Chapter titles are also facts: “Odds of being killed in a bus accident: 1:436,212,” is one example, and the chapter title reflects the content to come. Without giving away too much of the book, I can say while I enjoyed the inner politics of a tired, damaged marriage, the ending came as a disappointment. This may just be my nasty mind. A friend recommended reading Last Night at the Lobster, the book she considered O’Nan’s best. The Odds certainly convinced me that I want to read this author–who is sometimes given the name “The Bard of the [American] working class,” again.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley. Read on the kindle.

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