Book Review: Emily, Alone

First met in O'Nan's Wish You Were Here, 80-year-old Emily Maxwell, Henry's widow for almost seven years, is used to being alone. She enjoys a comfortable friendship with her ancient Springer spaniel, Rufus, and parses out her days in circumscribed ways that suit her. On Tuesdays, she has breakfast at a local restaurant with her sister-in-law, Arlene; on Wednesdays, Betty, the cleaning lady, comes to the house. Betty also cleans for Arlene, so she often acts as interlocutor, interpreter and benign tale-bearer between the two women. Arlene, terrible driver that she is, has been designated driver for the duo's Tuesday morning forays because Emily hasn't driven for many years. One morning, Arlene has a slight stroke in the restaurant, and that event changes the status quo.

Emily has been content to listen to her favorite classical music radio program, work on a crossword puzzle, eat when and what she pleases and take a brief nap in Henry's chair if she feels like it. Now, she finds herself called upon to wait on Arlene. She doesn't begrudge Arlene her time; it's simply an unexpected alteration. This change sets in motion several others.

Henry's car is an enormous Oldsmobile, so, after due consideration, Emily buys a more suitable car, one that gets better gas mileage and is easier to handle. With that purchase, Emily is no longer hostage to Arlene's schedule. She can get to the library and the grocery store on her own, even go places occasionally without Arlene. Her world opens up, but some things don't change. She marks the passing year by visits from her children at Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas--and the very special week spent every summer at Chautauqua. She still cannot love her daughter-in-law; is still disappointed in her daughter, Margaret, a recovering alcoholic; and her grown grandchildren still can't manage to send thank-you notes in a timely fashion, if at all.

Woven through her everyday life are Emily's reflections on herself and the world around her: she knows that she likes to have her own way and pouts if she doesn't get it; puzzles over why her neighbor stands on her porch at 3 a.m., stark naked in the light of the moon (but she would never ask); finds fault with the Garden Show and the Art Museum exhibit-- and knows that she is simply flailing her own important air; no one else is paying attention.

For all of this, O'Nan presents the reader with a portrait that transcends the merely mundane, as Emily recalls happy times with family and friends, many of whom are now gone, and anticipates her own mortality with an enviable serenity.--Valerie Ryan

Shelf Talker: At 80, Emily Maxwell muses about her life, the loss of good friends, the joys and disappointments brought about by her children and grandchildren, and contemplates her own mortality. Never morbid, Emily's insouciance and self-knowledge make enjoyable reading.


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