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Light-hearted take on life’s last lingering years

I remember, I remember

The house where I was born,

The little window where the sun

Came peeping in at morn;

He never came a wink too soon

Nor brought too long a day;

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But now, I often wish the night

Had borne my breath away.

—Thomas Hood


This novel significantly affected this reviewer simply because I gradually developed a tremendous empathy with the protagonist, a woman who is close to the end of her life and spends much of her time “summing up.”

Could she have done better? Now, alone except for her aging dog, Rufus, she sits staring through her living room window, watching the familiar contours of her neighborhood vanish beneath the attack of the municipal bulldozers and jack hammers. The construction of a new water/sewer system has rendered her beloved neighborhood unrecognizable, filling the air with noise and dust.

All of her old friends are either dead or moved away and her life has been reduced to boring routines: washing the dishes, paying the bills, checking the mail. Emily needs a change.

When  Arlene, her best (and only) friend keels over at the Eat ‘n Park, “two for one” breakfast buffet, Emily’s life becomes even more constricted.

Having become dependent on Arlene to drive her to the library, the grocery store and church, Emily is now forced to rely on taxis — an alternative that she soon abandons as both frustrating and expensive. Visiting Arlene in the hospital, Emily is relieved to learn that her friend had merely fainted because of low blood sugar (although she now has some dramatic stitches on her forehead).

Emily ponders her predicament. Arlene’s poor vision makes her a dangerous driver; also Emily finds that there are places that she wants to go alone: her husband’s grave, for example. Against the advice of family and friends, she buys a new car (a Subaru) and ventures out into the world again. 

Although Emily, Alone is essentially a warm, and often humorous account of an elderly woman’s rational acceptance of her own mortality, Emily’s daily life has occasional moments that are heartbreaking and poignant. Certainly, she finds much to enjoy in life: the classical music station on her radio that continues to play her favorite Bach and Vivaldi; her garden and the annual return of flowers which she tends with a zealot’s devotion.

Then, there are the gratifying annual events: the spring flower show which she and Arlene attend each year; the museum, and a Van Goth exhibit; the new symphonic season with a Mozart program.

However, in counterpoint to this annual ritual, there are the “family events” — Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners; the yearly trip to a cabin called “Chautauqua” and the visits of children and grandchildren. All of these events are fraught with frustration and disappointments, such as an alienated daughter with a drinking problem; sons who seem reluctant to return home since they are married and have conflicting obligations...and the grandchildren who are bored by the whole affair.

Beneath it all runs Emily’s rueful acceptance that each event may be “the last time” she will see the people that she loves.

There is also this. As the seasons change, as winter gives way to spring (“This may be the last spring” thinks Emily), a goodly portion of Emily’s thoughts are colored by guilt, regret and anxiety. She remembers the thoughtless and cruel comments that she made to her own mother and finds contained in her own daughter’s arrogant and bitter pronouncements the same anger that had once been her own.

Like all mothers who find themselves alone, there are days when Emily has little to do except revisit old grievances and imagined slights from her family. The receiving and sending of Christmas cards becomes a daunting activity in which Emily equates a late (or never sent) card as indicative of a relative’s indifference.

Funerals of old friends acquire profound significance in terms of flowers, musical selections and seating. Emily carefully plans her own service. The writing of her will and the distribution of her estate becomes a topic for discussion with her children, who (thinks Emily) respond with indifference. Like most mothers, Emily suffers all of these imagined insults with stoic silence....until she is safely at home.

No doubt, many readers will find Emily to be an all-too-familiar figure, but they are also likely to admire her, as she drives her new car to destinations she had once thought beyond her reach. Her relationship with the delightful Rusty, her decrepit dog, is both tender and comical, since Emily keeps up a colorful monologue directed at the failing canine, filled with comical nick-names.

He is Doo-fus when he is awkward and Tubby when he gains weight. His owner worries that she may out live him, but dotes on him as though he were her child. She sympathizes with him regarding his bouts of flatulence, but admits that she has similar failings herself. Each day, when a rogue squirrel comes to raid the bird feeder, Emily opens the back door and urges Rusty to attack. “Sic ‘em, Rusty.” The squirrel is gone before Rusty gets to the feeder, but Emily always assures him, “You almost got him, that time!”

Her relationship with her “once-each-week” housekeeper, Betty, is often comical as they compare notes on food, relatives, dieting and politics. However, the best exchanges are between Emily and Arlene, who are two old friends that are totally mismatched. Arlene is a retired teacher, who loves soap operas and often distresses Emily with her love of pop music and bad art. Yet the two are devoted and familiar figures in their town, dining weekly at the Eat ‘n Park and shopping for blueberry muffins at Giant Eagle. Regardless of who is the chauffeur, they attend church, funerals and art shows together.

As Emily enjoys her new car, she seems to be gathering nerve for “a long drive.” In time, we learn that the destination is Emily’s hometown, Kersey, Penn., a place she had once vowed she would never see again. Perhaps it is the “summing up” of her life that prompts Emily to finally pack a pair of cosmos (potted flowers) into the Subaru and set out for a backwater town and an old cemetery where she will spend hours digging the dry baked dirt at her parent’s tombstones. It was something that needed to be done.

Perhaps it is only with this final act of acknowledging her origins, that Emily can return home to sit quietly in a window above her garden, with a glass of wine and the music of Albinoni and Vivaldi playing softly. Her obligations and duties have all been fulfilled now. Nothing to do now but wait.

Emily, Alone by Stewart O’nan. Penguin Books, 2011. 255 pages.

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