Alone, Emily isn't as interesting
In Stewart O'Nan's earlier novel, "Songs for the Missing," the disappearance of a teenage girl sets up a compelling, well-paced story that alternates between the grueling search and the family's private moments of grief.
In his latest, Mr. O'Nan chooses a much quieter situation. The protagonist, elderly Emily Maxwell, struggles through a particularly bleak period of widowhood after a long marriage. The opening scene, a rainy November day in Pittsburgh, with a low sky that "made it feel like afternoon instead of morning" sets the tone.
Emily and her sister-in-law, Arlene, venture to the Eat'n Park with a coupon. When Arlene blacks out in front of the breakfast buffet, Emily is jolted from her routines.
No longer can she take refuge in her pleasant home on Grafton Street, relying on Arlene to drive her to "the club" and other regular destinations. As she helps Arlene to recover, Emily begins driving again herself, giving up her late husband's giant Oldsmobile for a practical Subaru wagon.
Despite the new car, Emily finds herself frequently housebound with her ailing dog, Rufus, through an icy winter. Her isolation makes her widowhood as well as the recent loss of a close friend to cancer seem particularly acute. She reads novels like "Middlemarch" and listens to classical music on WQED-FM.
Her grown children, each living elsewhere and raising families of their own, frequently call, but annoy her with their vagueness about plans to visit. Her daughter and two grandchildren finally troop in at Christmas; her son and his two come for Easter.
Each visit causes Emily the anxiety of cleaning, shopping for groceries at the Giant Eagle and planning family activities, yet passes in a flurry with little meaningful conversation. She resentfully waits for thank-you notes.
Outside her home, friends die. Particularly difficult is the loss of Kay Miller, the former take-charge mother in Emily's social circle, who spent her final days in a nursing home. When the Miller house goes up for sale after a flurry of hedge clipping and painting, Emily realizes that she represents the last of her generation in the neighborhood.
In the spring, Emily perks up to garden and plan a trip to Chautauqua, N.Y., a favorite summer destination during her years with her husband.
The texture of the novel comes from Emily's memories and musings. She grew up in the "dumpy backwater" of Kersey, Pa., in Elk County, then reinvented herself as the club-going wife of an engineer from a prosperous family. Daughter Margaret's alcoholism and newfound sobriety create an interesting but undeveloped back story.
A chapter about Emily's return to the cemetery where her parents are buried gives us more insight into her character.
Mr. O'Nan skillfully and sensitively re-creates Emily's world, from the city streets she nervously navigates in the car to her fears of illness and death. To his credit, he resists the predictable device of having Emily fall in love again.
Despite these strengths, Emily's life just isn't that interesting, and her personal growth is so subtle it barely registers. Other characters remain too underdeveloped to compensate. After the inherent drama of "Songs for the Missing," this novel feels like little more than a well-rendered still life.
First Published March 20, 2011 12:00 am