“Emily, Alone” by Stewart O’Nan – The Ordinary Made Extraordinary ?

“Emily, Alone” by Stewart O’Nan (2011) – 255 pages

 Stewart O’Nan has chosen a quite wonderful quote to open “Emily, Alone”.

    “Could it be, even for older people, that this was life – startling, unexpected, unknown.”

                         Virginia Woolf

 Each time Stewart O’Nan writes a novel he must set up a dare to himself.  How can I make this very ordinary story that I’m going to tell seem extraordinary? 

 For the reader of O’Nan, his novels require a certain patience.  A reader’s first reaction is that this story is quite quotidian and mundane.  The first time I read one of his novels which was “A Prayer for Dying”, I had not developed the needed patience, and I rushed through it.  I didn’t read O’Nan for a long time after that.  Then last December almost by accident I picked up his short novel “Last Night at the Lobster”, because I wanted something with a Christmas theme to write about.  The novel had a quite ordinary story, the closing down of a Red Lobster at Christmastime told from its manager’s point of view.  This time I totally got into the spirit of this novel as my review shows.  The closing of this Red Lobster was an extremely significant event in the lives of all the people that worked there.  The novel showed all that went into making this ordinary restaurant run smoothly and all the manager had to consider to keep it running smoothly.  I was very impressed with “Last Night at the Lobster”. 

 “Emily, Alone” is a novel about the daily life of a widowed woman in her eighties living in her long-time home in Pittsburgh.  The novel is dedicated to his mother with the following words.


    “For my mother, who took me to the bookmobile.”

 Emily’s life after her husband died has ground down to only a few significant events, taking care of her dog Rufus, trips downtown with her quirky friend Arlene, visits from her children and grandchildren, her garden.    Emily’s true best friend Louise also died a few years ago, and Emily now has become friends with Arlene even though they aren’t entirely suited for each other.  Arlene’s driving is a constant worry, and Arlene has her own health problems. 

 If you are looking for a hugely exciting novel with thrilling events of derring-do and glamorous beautiful people, don’t go to “Emily, Alone”.  For Emily, an amazing act of derring-do is getting her husband’s old car out of the garage so she can drive it downtown and not have to ride with the erratic Arlene. 

 So what are the pleasures of “Emily, Alone”?  In the novel, you completely enter the mind of Emily.  These unremarkable events become vivid as Emily plans them and follows through with her plans.  Even in reduced circumstances daily life is still involving.  We keep going along.  In Emily’s words, a trip downtown to the annual Garden Show is as exciting as a car chase in other novels.  In “Emily, Alone”, Stewart O’Nan has complete empathy for his characters, and that makes all the difference.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Kelly S on May 1, 2011 at 3:19 AM

    How often do authors write about the elderly? My sense is nearly not as much as they write about middle-aged adults. This sounds like a great book.


  2. Hi Kelly,
    There are many novels where an old person looks back on some event of their youth, but not many that deal with the daily life of older people. Stewart O’Nan seems to rise to the challenge of making things that aren’t normally seen as story material fascinating.


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