But the emotional heart of the novel is Emily’s concern for her two adult children. The smoke has long since cleared from the old battles of their teenage years, and now Emily must negotiate with them carefully, from a position of confirmed weakness, knowing that they hold (and will use) the ultimate weapon: access to her grandchildren, those increasingly modern and remote beings. O’Nan has an uncanny sensitivity to the silent tensions that run beneath the most ordinary conversations, the unexpressed disappointment that follows when family members fail to match our enthusiasm for a holiday visit, a lecture on frugality or “The Nutcracker.” Emily’s barely repressed anticipation of Christmas will tweak the conscience of any irritated adult child. And O’Nan’s ability to record the loaded comments around the dining room table makes me feel it’s already late December.
O’Nan details all this tenderly, with no more sentimentality than Emily allows herself. “The temptation was to mourn those days,” he writes, “when they were young and busy and alive. As much as Emily missed them, she understood the reason that era seemed so rich — partly, at least — was because it was past, memorialized, the task they’d set themselves of raising families accomplished.”