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Emily Alone by Stewart O'Nan

Emily, Alone – the challenges of widowhood

Emily, Alone, the new novel from Stewart O’Nan, features characters we met eight years ago in his novel, Wish You Were Here.

Wish You Were Here is a novel I have recommended again and again – the perfect summer cottage book. A story about the final summer that Emily Maxwell, with her children and grandchildren, spends at her Lake Chautauqua cottage after the death of her husband, Henry.

Emily, as many widows have, must make the difficult choice to sell the cottage so that she can keep her home in the city. She gathers her family, including her sister-in-law, Arlene, for one last time at the cottage. Emily’s children have their own memories of the cottage and their father, and each will struggle with their emotions and their reaction to their loss. The teenage grandchildren have other concerns – their angst is as oppressive as the weather.

Stewart O’Nan captures perfectly the tender and prickly relationships between all of the family members – people who love each other but sometimes have difficulty in expressing it. Petty jealousies and private vulnerabilities and personal secrets are simmering beneath the surface of, mostly, civil conversation, as each member of the family takes away with them their last memory of this place they all love inordinately and the profound effect its loss means to each of them.

Wish You Were Here is a book in which everyone who spends time at the family cottage will find full of familiar sentiment, with characters you will be happy to meet again, in Stewart O’Nan’s new book, Emily, Alone.

Emily has lived alone since her husband died several years earlier. With her aging dog, Rufus, Emily spends her days in solitude, finding herself a series of small projects and errands to get her through the days. Her children live far enough away that they do not often visit. The grandchildren are young adults, and though they love their grandmother, she does not really have much importance in their lives. Since the death of her husband Emily and her late husband’s sister, Arlene, spend more time together than they did in earlier years. A relationship that has, at times, been strained is now comfortable – they have more and more in common as they age – and they share cherished memories of the past. Even so, Emily is often alone.

It is now 2008, Thanksgiving, just before Barak Obama is elected – Emily and Arlene are out for their regular breakfast buffet at the Eat ‘n Park when Arlene collapses and is taken to hospital. Emily who has, for several years, relied on Arlene to drive her around the city now decides to sell Henry’s old car that has been rotting in the garage and buys herself a sporty little wagon. She regains her confidence as a driver and finds a new freedom to her life.

Emily looks forward to visits from her family, readying the house, putting all in order – with expectations that can never be met. When they go, leaving Emily alone, again, along with her disappointment is a certain relief at having her home to herself again.

I don’t think it is absolutely necessary to read Wish You Were Here before reading Emily, Alone, but it would add to your understanding of Emily’s past. I read I Wish You Were Here so long ago I’d mostly forgotten it, but as the characters in Emily, Alone appeared and developed I felt as if I was being reacquainted with old friends.

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