E mily, Alone is one of those rare books in which nothing particular happens and yet just about everything seems to be going on. Stewart O'Nan's 12th novel is a sequel of sorts to his well-regarded Wish You Were Here (2002), which dealt with the white, middle-class Maxwell clan as it tried to come to terms with the recent death of their patriarch, Henry. A decade later, Henry's widow Emily soldiers on, surviving in quiet suburban solitude in the too-big Pittsburgh home she refuses to vacate. Her life is a progression of difficult negotiations with both the past and an outside world which is leaving her further and further behind. Should she sell Henry's monstrous old Oldsmobile for a more practical car? What is to be done about her sister-in-law Arlene's smoking, which is clearly killing the woman? Should she put down the family dog as he grows increasingly decrepit?
The book opens with Arlene's terrifying collapse as the two women shuffle through the breakfast buffet at the Eat 'n' Park. It turns out to be nothing more than a transient "episode," though it nevertheless provides Emily with an intimation of her own mortality. Although she dreads becoming "one of those old ladies obsessed with death, hearing it in every tick of the clock and creak of the floorboards, as if it were prowling around the house like a burglar," the prospect of her demise proves impossible to ignore. It pervades everything, from a bout of strep throat, which casts her into a tenebrous netherworld, to Henry's old tools in the basement, "lined up by size on pegboard, having fulfilled their lifetime guarantees."
This is not to say that the novel is gloomy or morbid. It percolates with life, most immediately in the form of Emily's family, who descend on her for holidays like panic attacks. The first to visit is her daughter Margaret, a recovering alcoholic with a personality more befitting a troubled teenager than a50-year-old mother of two. O'Nan's depiction of the mother-daughter minefield, in which the smallest of remarks can rapidly escalate into a full-scale donnybrook, is one of the novel's finest achievements. Rather less resonant is the Easter-time visit of her feckless son Kenneth and his lesbian daughter Ella, which proves to be one of the few moments in the book that feels perfunctory.
For the most part, however, O'Nan's storytelling is as patient and meticulous as his heroine. He illuminates the everyday with splendid precision. Readers who appreciate psychological nuance and fictional filigree will delight in Emily, Alone. O'Nan has the rare ability to take small moments - the writing of thank-you notes, for instance, or a visit to a flower show - and invest them with a mysterious power the source of which you can never quite identify. This precision is never more effective than in the rendering of Emily herself, with her affinities for Masterpiece Theatre, the plain-spoken decency of Bob Dole and the lesser works of Van Gogh, those that are too obscure to be reproduced on a postcard.
In perhaps the book's most poignant scene, Emily happens upon her grandson Justin, an astrophysics major in college, as he gazes at a website streaming images from the Hubble space telescope. "He leaned aside so she could see the screen. It was supposed to be a galaxy, but all she could make out was a white smudge in the night sky." It is typical of this fine book that, out of one fleeting moment, O'Nan can so wholly conjure his heroine's upcoming date with the heavens.
Stephen Amidon is the co-author, with his brother Dr. Thomas Amidon, of The Sublime Engine, a biography of the human heart.
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