But maybe they should. Consider, for instance, how many supposedly “daring,” “illuminating,” “startling” novels we get every year about disaffected young men, while the lives of the elderly — the fastest growing segment of our population — remain the stuff of grim or ribald caricatures. This strikes me as a failure of nerve more than imagination. After all, most of us would like to hang around long enough to bankrupt Social Security, but for all the novels we’ve got about death, the real undiscovered country would seem to be old age.
Which is what makes me enthusiastic about “Emily, Alone.” It quietly shuffles in where few authors have dared to go. And it’s so humane and so finely executed that I hope it finds those sensitive readers who will appreciate it.
Six years have passed since Emily Maxwell’s husband died, and since then she’s lived alone, managing just fine, thank you very much, though it’s annoying not to drive anymore. “After a run-in with a fire hydrant, followed quickly by another with a Duquesne Light truck, she admitted — bitterly, since it went against her innate thriftiness — that maybe taking taxis was the better part of valor.” That wry tone runs throughout this quiet novel, never subjecting Emily to satire, but allowing her to enjoy a bit of comedy at her own expense. “She was dying, yes, fine, they all were, by degrees,” O’Nan writes, catching the spirit of her fortitude just right. “If Dr. Sayid expected her to be devastated by the idea, that only showed how young he was. There was no point in going into hysterics. It wasn’t the end of the world, just the end of her, and lately she’d come to think that was natural, and possibly something to be desired, if it could be achieved with a modicum of dignity.”
Through short, crisp chapters we follow Emily’s well-ordered, dignified life, frequently challenged by calamities and disappointments large and small, all gently captured in O’Nan’s precise, unadorned prose. Some of these scenes are exquisite in their perfect balance of poignancy and restraint, while others sport a dark wit that’s never maudlin: “She didn’t need to be reminded,” he writes, “that she was a single misstep from disaster,” but that’s no reason to be late with one’s Christmas cards. The terror of being driven around town by her nearsighted, easily distracted sister-in-law makes her consider buying a new car. Her ancient, obese dog keeps threatening to die, a loss that scares her almost more than the death of her remaining friends. And Pittsburgh, so long her home, now seems to be slipping away from her memories, one rehab after another.