Saturday, August 13, 2011

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan

50. Emily, Alone
by Stewart O'Nan
fiction, 2011
library book
finished, 7/19/11

I think perhaps we are a bit afraid to read about older people or see them in movies because they remind us of what lies ahead. If they are lonely or sad, we tend to think this is because they are old. But really, if we are honest, we must admit that we have been lonely and sad sometimes at any age. When we're forty, we look back at twenty-five as carefree and full of fun. But twenty-somethings aren't always happy either. We have worries and fears and grief at any age. If someone tries to tell you, oh, you don't want to read a book about an older widow named Emily, don't listen. It is exquisite in its portrayal of this eighty-year-old woman. I felt it to be a great privilege to spend time in her company, and when the book ended, I was sad to let her go. I wanted more of her daily life, thoughts, ideas, and feelings. I loved this book beyond words. I shall let some passages tell you more than I can in this book report. The character was introduced in an earlier book called Wish You Were Here, but you do not have to read it first. Because it mattered to me, I thought I'd let you dog lovers know that Emily's older dog, Rufus does not die, and she doesn't either!

As Emily, a widow of several years is preparing to go out, she struggles a while to hitch her necklace. She remembers when her husband was alive.
Over the years she and Henry had made a ceremony of the moment. There was no need to ask him. On formal occasions like tonight he would stand behind her like a valet, waiting for her to finish her makeup. She'd find him admiring her in the mirror, and while she discounted his adoration of her beauty - based, as it was, on a much younger woman - she also relied on it, and as time passed she was grateful for the restorative powers of his memory. No one else saw her the way he did. He knew the eighteen-year-old lifeguard she used to be, and the fashionable grad student, the coltish young mother. When he solved the clasp, he'd watch her regally settle the necklace on her chest, and then with his hands on her shoulders, bend down and kiss the side of her neck, making her close her eyes.
That time of year which is so hard for many of us is described perfectly.
The groundhog was wrong. Spring was at least six weeks away. Easter even longer. It was the dark time of year Emily dreaded, the promise of better weather a taunt as one dispiriting system after another swept across the Great Lakes. Snow, sleet, rain, fog. The sun came out every few days, and the slush melted, only to refreeze overnight, triggering pileups on the Parkway and making their hill impossible. Not even the Subaru could handle black ice, and instead of risking life and limb, she stayed in, the list on the refrigerator growing a second column.
When she and her sister-in-law Arlene visit an art museum, Emily is moved by a Van Gogh painting, Almond Blossom.

The flowers themselves did nothing for her, but the blue Van Gogh had chosen for the air captivated her - rich and bright, near aqua with a milky whiteness to it, a loudness which would have been laughable on the trim of a house and was nearly an affront here, yet from her first glance Emily couldn't look away. For months she'd been dreaming of spring. Here it was in all its gaudy freshness, made present through the plainest of emblems - a flower, a branch, the sun-warmed air. … How strange that his choice of color, made so long ago, was waiting to dispel her gloom at just that moment. And to think she'd felt it despite the chaos all around her [school field trips]. She couldn't imagine a greater testament to the power of art, and wasn't that why they were there, to have their faith in it renewed?
The joy of summer:
For Emily, the real start of summer was marked not by Memorial Day and its poppies and parades, but the opening of her day lilies. They sprang up with the heat, their long stalks tilting over the driveway, their pumpkin-colored blooms facing the sun, a jubilant crowd welcoming her home. Her garden was in full riot, the alliums looming like pale blue moons above her phlox and sedums and gladioli. One border of Dalmation bellflowers hadn't quite filled in, but on the whole she was pleased. She spent hours hunched on her stool, communing with the elements, pruning and pinching in the hopes of even more glorious results. The sun rejuvenated her, her skin soaking in the vitamin D, and when the phone trilled in the kitchen, she let it ring.
When I finished this book, I told Tom that it is among the very best I've ever read.


  1. This looks like one I'd like to read - the wait list at the library is so long, I might have to buy it - darn, darn.

    I'm reading about an 82-year-old woman now that you might like. She's trying desparately not to forget the past (and a wondrous one it was). A retired doctor, she's living in Cairo now, and her teenage granddaughter comes to visit. From the book jacket, "She helps her grandmother document her deteriorating memories of the glittering cosmopolitan Cairo of World War II"

    Iris & Ruby by Rosie Thomas

  2. What beautiful writing, Nan. I will definitely be looking for a copy of this book and the earlier one that you mention.

  3. SO good to hear from you, Janice. I was going to email you to check up. I'm going to go look for that book now. Oh, and Emily, Alone is well worth the money. I am going to buy it for myself so I can go back and read it again.

    Maureen, I am quite sure you will love it. Stewart O'Nan is such a wonderful writer. I want to read more of his work.

  4. I loved Emily and Henry in Wish You Were Here and continued to love Emily in Emily, Alone. Funny, I almost typed "Emily and Tom" -- you see, my husband is Tom also. That's what is so beautiful about O'Nan's writing; you get to know the characters so well that you are almost there with them. Thanks for a beautiful review. Annie

  5. Annie, I'm so happy you read it and liked it. What you wrote is absolutely true - they are so very real.

    Ernestine, you'll really like it, I'm quite sure.

  6. Beautiful and passionate review. I will put the title on my library queue. Thank you for the recommendation.

  7. This is one I'll check the online catalogue of our library for, it sounds just like my kind of book. Thank you for pointing it out to us here!

    Yesterday, I read a long article in my weekly newspaper, written by a young journalist about her grandparents. Her grandmother developed dementia so strong it made it impossible for her grandfather to keep living with her. He had to put her into a home, and he felt horrible about it. He still loved her deeply but she did not recognize him anymore as the man she had loved for decades, and that hurt him more than he could cope with. It was a very touching article, and I would have liked to learn more about both their lives, regardless of their age.

  8. It is on my hold list at the library, I will activate it, I think. (although I am LOVING Louise Penny right now!)

    Your book reports are so well written Nan. They are truly a pleasure to read.

    Have a wonderful Sunday,

    PS I am going to spend the day with my 3 day old grandaughter Eloise :-)

  9. Terrific passages, Nan, and you have tempted me greatly on this one.

  10. Thank you, Wendy. It is such a wonderful book. O'Nan is a master at writing about emotions, locale, and weather!

    Librarian, such a sad, sad story. And one that is all too familiar, it seems. I'm hoping you're able to get it over there, but if not, I'm sure your wonderful mother-in-law will help you out!

    Thank you, Niki. And great, great news! I love her name.

    Penny, it's a wonderful book.

  11. I really enjoy Stewart O'Nan, so I am going to look for this book. I read his The Night Country a few years ago, one of the best, and truest ghost stories I've ever read. So Emily, Alone is on my list now! Thanks for the wonderful review.

  12. Susan, thank you!
    I want to read everything he has written. He is SO good.

  13. I always perk up when someone reviews a book by O'Nan, even though I've loved only one of his books - A Prayer for the Dying. The other books I've read by him, I've just thought were okay. Maybe I should take another stab at this one though. I love the excerpt about the necklace.

  14. Christy, he is a new writer to me, though my husband read the book he did with Stephen King on the Red Sox, Faithful, and thought it was great. Emily, Alone is perfectly written. A wonderful reading experience.

  15. so I got on the end of the long waiting list at the library, and meanwhile I'm reading "Wish You were Here" on my Kindle

  16. Nan, so happy you had a chance to enjoy this one. I loved it as well; the audio version was very good.

  17. Nan,
    The way that the character was inspired by art... oh, this really sounds like a great book. Thanks for the great review!

  18. Loved the musings on Van Gogh you quoted and yes, the extremely elderly should be represented more in fiction.

  19. One of the very best you've ever read? I will have to add this to my must read list for sure. I read another book by this author and enjoyed it.

  20. That's a lovely review, thanks.

    I also liked your discussion at the beginning of our reluctance to read about a certain phase of life... I run (and buy books for) a general-reading library in a cancer hospital. I go back and forth on these books. Sometimes it seems my clientele (overwhelmingly elderly) do appreciate them and other times I see them sit unused. Memoirs or gentle contemplations of late-life and/or widowhood (widowerhood?) are sometimes comforting, and sometimes, the same people seem to want fluffy, light things to read. Less sad, they say. It's an interesting thing to watch, and to try and predict (buy for).

  21. I've not heard of this author but I do love books about older women especially. Thanks for recommending this! Can't wait to read it.

  22. I do not know this author; I will look for him and for this book or the first one about EMily.

    I love your book reviews -- and the illustrations you add, i.e. the almond branch painting are perfect. Thanks.

  23. Janice, I did begin Wish You Were Here, but it was due back to the library before I got very far. I'll be interested to hear what you think. And again, it is so very good to hear from you again.

    Diane, I used to listen to audio books all the time, but quit when they went from tape to cd. I just found it harder to deal with cds when it came to books.

    Kay, I loved that part. The whole book is full of such wonders.

    Vintage Reading, as Gertrude Stein said, 'we are always the same age inside.' Certainly there are changes as we age, but it seems to me that our hearts and minds don't change a whole lot.

    Staci, I want to read more of Stewart O'Nan's writing. It is so good.

    Pages of Julia, I think in their position I wouldn't want aging memoirs or fiction or illness books. I would definitely want distraction in the form of mysteries, most likely.

    Karla, good to hear from you! I think you'd like this one.

    Sallie, thanks. I was happy to find the picture she had been looking at.

  24. After reading this post, I decided to get Emily, Alone through interlibrary loan. Looking forward to reading it. Love your recommendations.

  25. What a wonderful review, Nan! I immediately went to the library and picked up Emily, Alone. The inside flap tells me it's a sequel to Wish You Were Here. I haven't read that one, and have this thing about reading books out of order.

    Since I have been wanting to read Stewart O'Nan anyway, got a copy of Wish You Were Here yesterday. The cover says "the perfect summer-by-the lake read". How could I resist? Ten pages in and I love it already...

  26. Nan,
    I just love your write-up! Yes, that is definitely a book I can't wait to read and have ordered it as well as the first the descriptive narrative!
    Once again you have done a lovely job of giving enough excerpts to whet the appetite:)
    Hope you are enjoying your own garden and letting that phone ring...

  27. lgraves, I think you'll like it. The writing is beautiful.

    JoAnn, thank you! It isn't really a 'sequel' in the way that you must read them in order. But WYWH is where Emily and her family were introduced.

    Joanne, I go one better, and have my phones (landline and cell) on no sound. I let the answering machine and voicemail answer. :<)

  28. You write the most enticing book reviews, Nan! I didn't care for this author's Last Night at the Lobster, but I'm willing to give this novel a try based on your wonderful write-up! Great passages!

  29. Gosh, thank you, Les. I have had your review of the Lobster book in my head since you wrote it, and I plan that to be my next Stewart O'Nan book. I was fascinated by the concept.

  30. I just finished Emily, Alone, and like you, I didn't want the book to end. I loved this book! And what writing! I would count Emily, Alone as one of the best books I've read this year, right up there with Atonement and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. Thanks so much for writing about Emily, Alone. I'll be reading more of Stewart O'Nan.

  31. And I thank you, lgraves, for taking the time to come back and tell me. This is my favorite, favorite part of blogging - these conversations that spring up in comments. I want to read more of his work, too.

  32. If lgraves loved this as much as Atonement (my #1 read the year it was published) and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (sure to be in my Top Ten in 2011), I definitely have to read it now! Of course, I was planning to based solely on your review, Nan. But lgraves has motivated me to get it ASAP!

  33. Les, I'll be very interested to see what you think. Did your mother read it?

  34. I don't know? I'll ask her when we chat tomorrow.

  35. This is most definitely making it into my top 10 of the year. Just loved it.

    You shared some great passages. I put up my review today.

  36. Beth, I'm so glad you came by to tell me! I'll be over to read your review.


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