Lately, Stewart O’Nan hasn’t made it easy to recommend his novels. The only thing they’ve got going for them is their superb quality. But ask, “What’s it about?” and his fans sound defensive or pretend they’re getting an important call on their cellphones. Just try persuading your book club to read a novel about the day a Red Lobster restaurant closes. (Without incident.) Or how about a novel that describes an old lady waiting for spring? (It comes.) Face it: O’Nan has become the Kobayashi Maru scenario of book marketing. Even when his novels promise heart-stopping spectacle — Daughter kidnapped! Husband killed! Teens crash! — he resists every expected dramatic element. This is an author who would drive all around town to avoid running over a single cheap thrill. He subverts our desire for commotion, and searches instead for drama in the quotidian motions of survivors.
His new novel is an even harder sell than usual. It’s about an 80-year-old widow in Pittsburgh named Emily. She’s relatively healthy and financially secure. Highlights of the plot include lunch at the art museum, discovering a scratch on the car, waiting for thank-you notes to arrive. This may be why nobody ever asks for the “Geriatric Fiction” section.
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.
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.”
“Emily, Alone” is a sequel to “Wish You Were Here” (2002), O’Nan’s long, multi-faceted story about a family’s last summer vacation in Chautauqua, N.Y. It’s tempting to assume that this new novel, at half the first one’s length and with its narrow, sclerotic plot, is just a death rattle from the original story, but in fact it’s better. Shorter, wittier, much more tightly focused, “Emily, Alone” makes the perfect demonstration of O’Nan’s humanizing vision. 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.
Charles, the fiction editor of The Post, reviews books every Wednesday.