Saturday, December 24, 2011

Emily, Alone

I love Stewart O'Nan. I've read many of his novels, though strangely I've never been systematic about it like I usually am when I find a writer I really like, reading their collected works. I think it's partly because many of O'Nan's books have been really creepy. But it might be time to make sure I've read all his books, because even when they're creepy, they're so good.

Emily, Alone isn't creepy. And apparently it's a sequel--I don't think I've read Wish You Were Here, but this novel completely worked on its own.

I don't feel enough on top of O'Nan's oeuvre to generalize about his writing (beyond saying that I haven't read all his books because lots of them were creepy), but two things that impressed me so much about this novel were how believable the narrator's voice is--and she's an elderly woman, while O'Nan is a middle-aged guy--and how clearly set in Pittsburgh it is, how much Pittsburgh as a place is important to the story.

It's a novel about getting old, about Emily's shifting relationships with her children, about Emily's friends dying off and her dog growing decrepit.

It's a novel about Emily and what is important to her--and music is so important, classical music on the radio or on the stereo not often center stage, but often present and noted, a big part of her world.

She "married up," and she notes about her parents that
They had struggled to achieve and maintain their middle-class respectability in the face of a depression and a world war, a feat Emily thought was lost on her own children, accustomed to an affluence that must have seemed their birthright as much as it had been Henry's [her late husband] and Arlene's [her sister-in-law--and one of her few remaining friends], born to fortune.
The book is set during the 2008 presidential election, and Emily, a life-long Republican, votes for McCain almost in spite of herself. Her sister-in-law is excited to vote for Hillary Clinton:
Early on, Arlene had made it plain she was voting for Hillary, and, as a woman, was thrilled to have the opportunity. Emily, who saw the Clintons' marriage as the very worst kind of compromise, regarded Hillary as the opposite of a role model. She understood Arlene's excitement in finally having a viable woman candidate. Too bad she happened to be Lady Macbeth.
Ha, ha, ha.

She's dubious about Obama--"He'd been a senator for less than two years, and all Emily heard out of his mouth were platitudes. What maddened her was how the media compared him to Jack Kennedy, as if that were a good thing."

But she has her reservations about McCain, too:
She would have been happier voting for John McCain if he wasn't so gung ho about the war. And if he hadn't been one of the Keating Five. And if he hadn't run out on his first wife after her accident.

The novel ends with Emily and Arlene (and Rufus, the dog) going to Chautauqua for their week in the summer. It ends with Emily keeping on trucking, a nice ending for a book that is so much about mortality and Emily wondering why she's still around when her children are grown, her husband is dead, her friends have mostly died. But in the midst of these moments of wondering why she's around, she is still enjoying her life, and we see that here: her weekly trips with Arlene to the breakfast buffet with coupons, her phone calls from the children and their occasional visits, her reading, her love of her summer garden.

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