Tag Archives: Pittsburgh

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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Fever Dream by Dennis Palumbo

I’d read some good reviews of Dennis Palumbo’s first book Mirror Image, so I decided to give this author’s second novel a try. After all, Fever Dream features Daniel Rinaldi, clinical psychologist and “trauma expert” who acts as a consultant for the Pittsburgh police, and I have a weakness for books that feature therapists. Dennis Palumbo who is a psychotherapist was formerly a Hollywood screenwriter, and all of that experience is apparent in this action-packed tale that seems to be firmly rooted in the thriller genre and screams for a film adaptation.

Rinaldi, now a widower due to the actions of a coked-up mugger, rather appropriately specialises in therapy for the victims of violent crime. So it’s no surprise when he’s called in to try to extract some vital details from a terrified bank teller who’s just been released from a hostage situation at First Allegheny Bank. The teller, Treva Williams, is in a state of shock when Rinaldi arrives at the scene, and she’s able to give a few details about what happened inside the bank. A SWAT team surrounds the area, but any plan to negotiate vaporizes when the bank robber executes everyone–with the exception of the guard who’s left wounded, disgruntled and threatening to sue

While a bloody mop up is underway, Rinaldi promises to accompany Treva to the hospital, but a delay causes him to miss the departing ambulance that’s transporting Treva and the guard to the hospital. Later, however, news breaks that the ambulance never made it to the hospital….

From the moment Rinaldi arrives on the scene outside of the bank, something doesn’t feel right about this bank robbery. Was this because one of the robbers flaked out and ran off? Or was it because the assistant bank manager was cold-bloodedly killed as he bent to pick up his glasses? And what about the bank manager who rather conveniently didn’t go to work that day?

Rinaldi isn’t exactly on the Philadelphia’s Police dept Xmas list, and many of the officers resent his interference–especially Lt. Stu Beigler who thinks Rinaldi has no place sniffing around a crime scene. The bank robbery turns out to be a political hot potato as it’s an election year and District Attorney Leland Sinclair, a smooth, ambitious politician who’s running for Governor in a gentrified city is running on one of those  “tough law-and-order” platforms. The bloodbath at the bank is a PR nightmare for Sinclair, and while he spews forth the usual insipid political platitudes, he doesn’t fool anyone, least of all Rinaldi, about his real concerns. After all, “dead hostages make for lousy campaign ads.”

The clash between outward appearances and inner realities runs through the story as Rinaldi juggles his personal and professional life while finding that he’s drawn deeper into the aftermath of the hostage crisis. Since Rinaldi is a psychologist, the novel is full of his insights into human nature–insights that others miss:

His name, I recalled from Treva, was George. Tall, salt-and-pepper hair trimmed to a severe V at the middle of his forehead. He was in his mid-fifties, and given how tight he wore his olive green uniform, maybe a bit vain about how fit he was. Skin tanned like leather, a strong chin. Hard grey eyes that had seen a lot.

Here’s a scene from inside the bank:

I took another breath and found myself looking at the walls. Maybe to avoid looking down at the bodies. The walls spattered with blood, scarlet blotches that sprayed out in a curving pattern like thrown mud. That dripped slowly in rivulets to the floor like some living Pollock painting.

Bits of flesh and bone fragments pitted the teller’s  stations, the customer counters, the free-standing courtesy desk whose pen still dangled half-way to the floor with its silver chain.

Palumbo shows his screenwriting background in the sharply drawn physicality of that scene which captures the stunning violence and lives cut short in the flash of a moment. An engaging read packed with enough action to push the book into thriller rather than straight crime fiction, Fever Dream checks all the boxes for the genre while continuing the story of a strong series character. While references are made to incidents that took place in the first novel (Mirror Image), it does not appear necessary to have read that one first. However, that said, I would have preferred to read Mirror Image first as it seems that Rinaldi is not the only character to reappear in this second novel, and many of these characters have a history with Rinaldi.

My copy came courtesy of the publisher via netgalley and was read on the kindle.

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