This exquisite novel plumbs an interior landscape rarely explored in literature—that of a sharp 80-year-old American woman watching the contours of her quiet life grow ever narrower. Emily Maxwell, introduced in O’Nan’s Wish You Were Here (2003), is a compellingly old-fashioned character—wry, unsentimental, resourceful, self-critical and stalwart, even as her life fills with loss. Her beloved husband and best friend are dead, her family is far-flung, and her once-tight circle of country-club friends diminishes by the week. The brutalities of old age are upon her: she’s socially invisible, her body is weakening, she’s nervous in her once-genteel Pittsburgh neighbourhood.
It’s territory most of us don’t want to visit. So it’s testament to O’Nan’s talent that Emily, Alone is a page-turner suffused with vibrancy, humour, even hope. Emily finds purpose and comfort through order and ritual: writing to-do lists, attending church, keeping house, planning elaborate family holidays, and making weekly pilgrimages to Eat ‘n Park’s two-for-one buffet with her sister-in-law Arlene. During one of those jaunts, Arlene, the terrifying designated driver, suffers a minor stroke that prompts the frugal Emily to buy a new car, which brings fresh freedoms.
Emily’s universe may be small, but its depths are complex—revealing prickly tensions between elderly parents and middle-aged children, rueful observations on funeral etiquette, the complicated bundling of final regrets and reckonings. Emily’s unflinching insights are often disquieting. Happy memories, she finds, are actually the most painful: “They plagued her like migraines, left her helpless and dissatisfied, as if her life and the lives of all those she’d loved had come to nothing, merely because that time was gone, receding even in her own memory, to be replaced by this diminished present.” Yet even a diminished present can offer joy and discovery, as a temporarily depressed Emily realizes as she muses on the duplicitous nature of time: “Time, which had her on the rack, would just as effortlessly rescue her. This funk was temporary. Tomorrow she would be fine.”