It takes a deft hand to do justice to the ordinary. Most novelists don't even bother to try, which is why most novels are about a rip in the fabric of the routine. It's tough to find fiction ambitious enough to tackle the story of a run-of-the-mill job, a hum-drum family; but, if the mundane matters to you, then Stewart O'Nan is your man.
His 2007 novella, Last Night at the Lobster, chronicled the final shift at a chain restaurant that is shutting down, and it's the best story I've ever read about the meaning of commonplace work in people's lives. A few years earlier, O'Nan wrote a quietly best-selling novel called Wish You Were Here about a squabbling family gathering for its yearly vacation in the first summer after the death of its patriarch of the clan (though O'Nan would never resort to a pompous word like "patriarch"). Now, O'Nan has written a sequel to that earlier novel, called Emily, Alone, and it's a moody, lightly comic and absolutely captivating rendering of that most un-sensational of subjects: widowhood and old age.
You don't have to have read Wish You Were Here first before diving into Emily, Alone; I know because I read the novels in reverse order. Book reviewer responsibility aside, I read the earlier novel because I craved more time in the world that O'Nan has created here — the diligently achieved and now-fading upper-middle-class world of Emily Maxwell from Pittsburgh. Decades ago, Emily managed the class climb into the country club world of Pittsburgh by marrying Henry Maxwell. When this novel opens, Henry has been dead for over 10 years, and Emily, now 80, fervently wishes to hold on to her dignity as loneliness and death close in.
But, because Emily, Alone is written by O'Nan and not, say, Tolstoy, Emily's confrontations with the Infinite occur as she's carrying on with everyday chores: clearing out her messy basement; fighting off a cold and self-pity. In the first beautifully detailed chapter of the novel, Emily and her prickly sister-in-law, Arlene, drive off (oh so slowly) — as they do every week — to the Tuesday morning two-for-one breakfast buffet at the Eat 'n Park Restaurant. When they finally get there, Arlene keels over at the steaming hot breakfast bar, badly smacking her head on the sneeze guard. She has had some sort of a "spell" that requires her to remain in the hospital for a few days — and O'Nan does a wonderful job of evoking the excitement that this change in their shared schedule brings to Emily's life. Her daily visits even to the "oatmeal bareness" of the hospital afford conversation and community, and because the laid-up Arlene was always the driver, Emily now has to steel herself to pilot Arlene's bulky Taurus through the decaying streets of once familiar Pittsburgh neighborhoods. Eventually, Emily gets so cocky that she buys herself a new four-wheel-drive Subaru.
None of these events is rendered "cute." O'Nan's glory as a writer is that he conveys the full force of the quotidian without playing it for slapstick or dressing it up as Profound. Listen to his language. About Emily's weekly phone conversations with her middle-age children and college-age grandkids, O'Nan says:
"Her sole wish, now, was to be closer to them. It was hard to follow their lives from a distance, to send out cards and letters and presents, to call week after week and then receive in return only the barest of news, grudgingly given and heavily censored."
And here's O'Nan describing Emily trying to fasten a necklace without her late husband's help:
"On formal occasions like tonight [Henry] would stand behind her like a valet ... She'd find him admiring her in the mirror, and while she discounted his adoration of her beauty — based, as it was, on a much younger woman — she also relied on it, and as time passed she was grateful for the restorative powers of his memory."
With economy, wit and grace, O'Nan ushers us into the shrinking world of a pleasantly flawed, rather ordinary old woman and keeps us readers transfixed by the everyday miracles of monotony.