Sunday, April 17, 2011
EMILY, ALONE by Stewart O'Nan (2011) Viking Penguin, 255 pages
Even before I began the story proper, O'Nan's sweet nostalgic dedication, "For my mother, who took me to the bookmobile" and the Virginia Woolf epigraph: "Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life-- startling, unexpected, unknown?" drew me in.
EMILY, ALONE explores the ordinary day-to-day intimacies of widow Emily Maxwell, now well into her seventies, whose remaining companions are her sister-in-law Arlene and her aging Springer Spaniel Rufus.
Under O'Nan's storytelling spell, each sentence seems like a prayer about aging and memory at once familiar and slightly foreign: "Often she searched for words, trailing off in midsentence, then waving away the incomplete thought, one hand flapping." Remembering formal occasions "trying to pinch open the clasp and marry it to the tiny eyelet" of her necklace, Emily is nostalgic about Henry, her dead husband, who when alive "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 past she was grateful for the restorative powers of his memory." Isn't that restorative power of memory what we all yearn for as we age, often messily, inconveniently, ungraciously?
Emily waxes philosophical too, especially during the bleak midwinter, resigning herself to the notion that the past is another country and admitting the paradox that "Time, which had her on the rack, would just as effortlessly rescue her. This funk was temporary. Tomorrow she would be fine."
I suppose the great appeal of this novel is that everyone can relate. Each one of us has an Emily in our lives, an aging mother, or sister or great aunt or grandmother who is determined to be independent and not a bother or a burden to daughters or sons, and determined to "wait through everything else to do the thing you wanted." In Emily's case that means "Easter, her garden, Chautauqua." Though, "she thought there should be more to live for."
As soon as she's able to get out and putter in her garden, Emily feels the relief of time lifting from her: "She and the bees and the worms--even the spiders--all had their jobs to do. Left to her work, she forgot everything but the task at hand, falling into reverie." Even now I know how that feels, to be completely absorbed and to be outside of time, totally immersed in place. For weeks Emily avoids visiting her husband's grave and "finally it was only by writing his name down on the calendar as if they had a date that she made herself go."
EMILY, ALONE is a beautiful beautiful book. Make time for it and O'Nan's spell in your busy life. You'll be glad you did.