My review of Stewart O’Nan‘s new novel, Emily, Alone, appeared in last Sunday’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. I admire the book, though it took a little while to win me over. The story of an 80-year-old widow, Emily Maxwell, managing her Pittsburgh household after her sister-in-law suffers a stroke, the novel makes some awkward moves early on. A search for a working car battery noisily announces a revitalization theme (in a chapter titled “The Resurrection,” no less), and O’Nan’s attention to detail occasionally feels forced, as when whole paragraphs are dedicated to matters like Emily working a crossword puzzle. “Xwords = drama?” I scribbled in a margin.
Some pages later, I scribbled this: “What could be more perfect for a novelist to write about than old age?” Novelists are professional noticers, and in Emily, O’Nan has a person who has plenty of time not only to take in details but to think about what makes them important. You don’t necessarily need an elderly person for that. O’Nan did much the same thing in his excellent 2007 novel, Last Night at the Lobster, by setting it in a blizzard-bound restaurant, slowing time to take in all the curious ways people behave in a deceptively complicated setting; O’Nan made running a Red Lobster seem as emotionally and technologically fraught as steering the starship Enterprise.
Yet in a character like Emily, someone for whom xwords do = drama, that attention to detail is much more pronounced, because the smallest actions carry plenty of meaning—and, quietly in the background, is the sense that the time allotted for paying such attention is running short. “The day had been an adventure, and she expected to sleep well,” he writes; Emily’s chief accomplishments that day were doing the laundry and walking the dog. The tone of that sentence is flat, declarative, free of irony or judgment; O’Nan means neither to tease Emily for the modesty of her life or to set her up as an object of pity. But he’s not attempting to make a noble hero out of her either. Emily is too clear-headed and demanding for that—she repels not just pity, but condescension too.
O’Nan makes that work not just by describing all that small stuff, but by noting the emotions wrapped up in them. Writing about a thank-you card from Emily’s son Kenneth, he captures plenty about their history, education, and her approach to parenting:
Kenneth, ever dutiful, finished his thank-yous before Margaret started hers, though his were slapdash, as if he’d rushed through them just to be done. Due to larger curriculum changes, in the early seventies the Pittsburgh schools dropped writing, and his cursive never improved. A five-year-old’s scrawls could be charming, but not a fifth-grader’s, and as he grew older, Emily vetted his efforts like a teacher correcting homework, more often than not sending him back to his desk so that it became a struggle, and unpleasant, to the extent that the mere mention of thank-you notes met with a groan—a mistake, since it awakened her sense of outrage, which only escalated the situation. Occasionally he was confined to his room until she deemed his work suitable.
Much of Emily and Kenneth’s adult relationship jibes with that old tussle over thank-you notes—in his hasty scribbling is a lifetime’s worth of arguments over decorum. And O’Nan draws our attention to it without fuss or contrivance.