It’s been a long while since we first met the Maxwell family in Stewart O’Nan’s Wish You Were Here, which follows Emily, the widowed family matriarch, on one final summer trip to Lake Chautauqua with her two troubled children and four confused grandchildren. O’Nan’s gift for character study is truly in evidence as Emily, Alone picks up the thread with the title character now approaching 80, yet feeling instantly familiar.
Emily’s life may still have a few unexpected turns left, but it’s the deep, daily psychology that makes for such a moving portrait. Andrea Gallo narrates the intensely nuanced calculations of old age with grace and clarity, putting in a touch of gravel when Emily’s emotional strength occasionally fails, such as when she watches her equally ancient sister-in-law pass out and cut her forehead on the other side of the salad bar. Arlene, the sister-in-law, and Rufus, her old cocker spaniel, provide excellent sidekick material. Despite the cloudy skies of memory, there are plenty of laughs, as everybody is trying not to break a hip.
Gallo’s voice gives such an elegant texture to Emily’s thoughts, and never overreaches to garner sympathy. Her forthright manner is completely befitting of this woman who is crumbling just like her beloved Pittsburgh is crumbling. Whether Emily is contemplating the dusty old car she hasn’t driven in more than a decade, the unabashed real estate scramble going on at the brownstone for sale next door, or the grandchildren who are growing up and away from her, the tension is palpable. On the level of plot, one couldn’t say this novel is very action-packed. Yet between O’Nan’s lines and Gallo’s voice, there lurks something devastatingly suspenseful as Emily inches along the remainder of her mortality. Whether enjoyed as a sequel or on its own, this is a novel that haunts. Megan Volpert
A sequel to the best-selling, much-beloved Wish You Were Here, Stewart O'Nan's intimate new novel follows Emily Maxwell, a widow whose grown children have long moved away. She dreams of vists by her grandchildren while mourning the turnover of her quiet Pittsburgh neighborhood, but when her sole companion and sister-in-law Arlene faints at their favorite breakfast buffet, Emily's days change. As she grapples with her new independence, she discovers a hidden strength and realizes that life always offers new possibilities. Like most older women, Emily is a familiar yet invisible figure, one rarely portrayed so honestly. Her mingled feelings-of pride and regret, joy and sorrow- are gracefully rendered in wholly unexpected ways.
©2011 Stewart O'Nan (P)2011 Recorded Books, LLC
"...O'Nan's depiction... achieves a rare resonance." (Publishers Weekly)
Having found O'Nan's "Snow Angels" a bit grim, but well-written, and" Last Night at the Lobster" equally well-written, and not nearly as sad as I'd feared, I spent a credit on this book ... which is very well-written, and not at all grim. Like "Lobster", it's character-driven; however, in a full-length novel (the other was a novella) that's tougher to pull off. Listening to the audio may have contributed as the short chapters (more or less) ran together, whereas a print book would've seemed less daunting (for lack of a better term).
Having lived a roughly parallel life to Emily's kids, I can vouch that O'Nan completely nailed the character aspect, although the isolation of Emily (and her sister-in-law) seemed a bit overdone to me. It may seem incongruous, but it is accurate that someone who buys a new car in cash would make a point of remembering to bring a restaurant coupon for a couple of bucks off.
There's almost no tension in the novel, except for a bit between Emily and her daughter, and daughter-in-law; the latter almost entirely "off screen" filtered from Emily's point-of-view, leading to me wonder whether that had been covered already in the previous book "Wish You Were Here". Instead, those chapters consist of Emily's reactions to various situations: new neighbors taking the place of the last other "old guard" resident (my folks were about the last to go in their neighborhood after 35 years), Election Day (she votes for McCain, unenthusiastically), etc. One vignette has her attending the funeral of an old friend, who's survived by a same sex partner - Emily is pleased to note that the woman's (biological) family accords her "widow" status. Later, she expresses disappointment that she hasn't gotten to meet her granddaughter's partner (they live in Boston). Demographically, seniors may be the strongest group opposed to gays, but O'Nan has made it clear that educated WASP's are an exception. One episode I didn't care for was Emily's refusal to try a product recommended by her cleaning lady for dealing with car scratches, with its class-conscious dismissal; instead she moans about paying $500 to the dealership. She also sneers at the woman's "Butler" accent.
The lack of action is at least partially compensated for by the author's sense of place. I've never been to Pittsburgh, but came away seeing the area clearly - and I'm not that "visual" a reader. Granted, he does get carried away at times: it wasn't really necessary to go through all the choices on the salad bar at the (coupon) restaurant in an early episode.
So - would I recommend the book? Yes, if one bears in mind that each chapter is a small part of a larger whole, that doesn't really contain a traditional story arc. If you're new to O'Nan, however, I'd go with Lobster first.
Audio narration itself was overall good, although at times it seemed even Ms. Gallo was overcome by the task of maintaining interest in quite mundane matters.
Loved this book. A sensitive insight into the life of an aging woman. O'Nan doesn't pull any punches, but listening, I had the impression he really cared about Emily.
I loved this novel for its rare protagonist, the invisible woman. This story is about what at least 50% of us will become at some time in the future; an elderly woman. Emily is adaptable to the changes occurring in her life, and makes the best of them. Nothing earthshaking happens, just like in real life. The tedium and the risks, of her life are given equal time. Many pages are devoted to one sided conversations between Emily and Rufus her aging springer spaniel...... thankfully the dog does not die, he soldiers on just like Emily.
Kathleen in FL
This story about a time in the life of an eighty year old woman is so real that one wonders how a young man could have written it. The cares and concerns of this demographic are right on target - carrying on after the death of the husband, worrying about the ability to drive his big boat of a car, needing yet chafing under the somewhat clawing friendship of a female contemporary, coming to grips with her flawed children who will never be all she had hoped and recognizing the deterioration of her formerly capable body. This was a moving and enjoyable book. I know lots of women like Emily, women who continue to be productive well into their nineties and beyond. They are my heros and Emily is right up there among them.
It is difficult to imagine how a male author could capture the persona of a woman near her ninith year.
A widow, Emily faces the end days with practical courage. O'Nan paints her world with a balanced brush. You see her come to understand how her sometimes strained relationships with her children are not that much different than hers with her mother. Emily's health is remarkable; she has a comfortable living allowing her to keep the self reliance that has supported her since the death of her beloved husband. No whine and moan for Emily, she soldiers on determined to make the best of each day. The narrator is perfect for the part. This is not a book for someone looking for adventure or drama. However, if like me, you are a woman of a certain age looking for a gentle read about someone you might just know, this is the book for you. I found it a book with a lot of food for thought about my own life.
I identified with Emily, for better or worse, because I am getting up there myself. It seemed an accurate description of life at the end.
There were times when it made me angry because she was a good person, but forgotten by most people. It was true to life as you get old.
I don't know if younger readers would get it, or care, but anyone approaching or living in old age would be pleased to read about an everyday woman at this stage of life who is not boring or feeling sorry for herself but speaking the truth.
someone with no window to look out of
I kept listening all the way to end, thinking it just had to get better. It never did.
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