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Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
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A-Emily AloneNamed one of America's Best Young Novelists by Granta, Stewart O'Nan is the author of A Prayer for the Dying, Snow Angels, and Last Night at the Lobster ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Mar/Apr 2008). In 2004, he cowrote a nonfiction work with Stephen King titled Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season.

The Story: In this sequel to Wish You Were Here (2002), the widowed 80-year-old Emily Maxwell lives a quiet life in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Her husband's belongings remain scattered throughout their home and her beloved dog, Rufus, grows fatter with each passing year. Emily wonders when her grown children will visit, relies on family to drive her around town, and grieves as neighbors die and their homes go up for sale. But when her sister-in-law, Arlene, collapses at their favorite brunch place, Emily learns that change comes to everyone, even when they are not prepared for it, and she starts to discover a newfound independence.
Viking. 272 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780670022359

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"What a relief: No vampires, zombies, fashionistas, shopaholics; no child abuse, alternate universes, cyber anything; and no violent crime ... mark Stewart O'Nan's lovely, lyrical, leisurely paced portrait. ... Emily is as authentic a character as any who ever walked the pages of a novel." Mameve Medwed

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"O'Nan is a true virtuoso. ... And now I will look at every elderly person a bit differently." William Kist

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"O'Nan gives each small experience an emotional heft, and he's supremely skilled at revealing Emily's emotional investment in every small change in her life. ... Still, this is primarily a book about death, or about approaching it." Mark Athitakis

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Yes, there's always the danger that he's writing what Frank Norris once disparaged as ‘the drama of the broken tea cup.' But what saves him is his profound respect for Emily, the hopes and fears that lie beyond her old-lady foibles and fussiness, which, even if you aren't an old lady and never will be, turn out to be the same hopes and fears we all harbor alone." Ron Charles

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. O'Nan skillfully and sensitively re-creates Emily's world, from the city streets she nervously navigates in the car to her fears of illness and death. ... Despite these strengths, Emily's life just isn't that interesting, and her personal growth is so subtle it barely registers." Clara Silverstein

Critical Summary

Critics often describe Stewart O'Nan's novels as small stories. Last Night at the Lobster, for instance, depicts a man's final day as manager of a Connecticut Red Lobster restaurant. Although one critic found this latest book uninspiring, most described it as elegant and humorous, with a rare, authentic heroine. Readers will feel a spark of kinship toward Emily Maxwell, recognizing in her their own mothers and grandmothers, if not themselves. Death lingers in its pages, but Emily, Alone shows "life's persistence without the grim fatalism or spry attitude that define so many fictional portraits of the aged," found the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Filled with unexpected insight on aging, dignity, and death, Emily, Alone is "a portrait filled with both joy and rue" (Boston Globe).