- Time on Her Hands
With his novels Snow Angels, The Names of the Dead, and The Speed Queen, Stewart O'Nan has gained a reputation for bleak violent stories that hold at their core a fine-tuned sense of the everyday. More recently he's toned down the mayhem, or, as in his bestselling Last Night at the Lobster, has omitted it entirely; and his mastery of a patient, acute realism has grown with each book.
Emily, Alone, O'Nan's twelfth novel, is a sequel to Wish You Were Here (2002), his expansive chronicle of a family vacation at Lake Chautauqua. Readers of that earlier book, with its intimate portraits of the recently widowed Emily Maxwell, her two children, a daughter-in-law, four grandchildren, and her unmarried sister-in-law, Arlene, might expect the word alone to refer to Emily in a bereft and solitary old age. She does consider herself the last of "the old crew" and misses her husband Henry terribly, but seven years later Emily still has Arlene for a companion as well as, surprisingly, her springer spaniel, Rufus, on whom everyone was already keeping a watchful eye in the first novel. She has her cheerful cleaning woman, Betty, and her willing next-door neighbors, the Coles. At eighty, independent and in reasonably good health, Emily is on her own but is not exactly alone.
O'Nan's title might point at least as accurately to the exclusive focus on Emily and her life in Pittsburgh, in contrast to the multiple points of view that give Wish You Were Here its comprehensive scope. We don't learn much in this new novel about the careers of the other Maxwells (for that we must hope for further sequels), but we see Emily in an entirely new light. Where Wish You Were Here probed a week of family life, digging minute by minute into each member's perspective, Emily, Alone surveys in episodic fashion one elderly woman's year.
It's an unexpected and exhilarating achievement. Long praised for his keen observation of working-class and suburban young adults, O'Nan delivers here, in an utterly convincing voice, a grandmother's polite round of art exhibits, flower shows, and breakfast buffets. Emily's tart judgments and dry sense of humor emerge in O'Nan's attentive account of her days, in her laconic exchanges with Arlene, and in her frequent asides to Rufus ("Just hold your horses, Mr. Fatty"). Her liquor cabinet includes "the normal Episcopalian assortment of hard stuff," O'Nan informs us; and he details Emily's opinionated classical music selections as knowledgeably as he catalogued the punk and metal favorites of his Speed Queen joy-riders and dopefiends. Attending church or contemplating her friends' deaths or her own, Emily regards God as a dignified, remote club president, and O'Nan treats her faith with gentle understanding.
At half the length of Wish You Were Here, Emily, Alone might be the more ambitious novel. The Good Wife and Songs for the Missing display O'Nan's ability to convey the passage of time, dramatizing years [End Page xxxix] of waiting for a prison sentence to end and months without word of a kidnapped daughter. In Emily, Alone O'Nan takes up the nature of time once again and makes it an explicit theme.
For the very young with next to nothing behind them, life can consist solely of looking ahead. For the very old the temptation is to look only backward, as though the present no longer counts. Emily, aware of having "too much time to herself," keeps vigilant against the "trick," the "danger" of nostalgia. "The past was the past," she chides herself: "Better to work on the present instead of wallowing." Yet she knows that thoughts of the past aren't the only danger and that the future holds paralyzing prospects of its own. She admits to distracting "herself . . . by crafting her elaborate plans."
And so, avoiding the traps of nostalgia and fear, she keeps busy with her household duties and her excursions with Arlene. When a box...