Karen Valby
March 16, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Emily, Alone

Current Status
In Season
Stewart O'Nan

We gave it an A

On the surface, one wouldn’t call Stewart O’Nan’s latest novel, Emily, Alone, an obvious pageturner. Its heroine is the rather rigid Emily, 80-year-old widowed matriarch of the Maxwell clan that O’Nan explored in his 2002 domestic drama Wish You Were Here, and the narrative largely consists of her daily routine piddling away the hours in her Pittsburgh home. Yet there’s so much yearning in Emily — to like herself more, to forgive her own failings and those of her grown children and grandchildren, to wring something meaningful out of her final years. And O’Nan writes with such specificity and humor. On yet another friend’s memorial service: ”The room was windowless, the air warm and stagnant, and as Jamie read a long, gently comic remembrance of her mother’s love of weddings, Emily thought that she’d been to so many of these that she’d become a critic.”

The novel kicks off at the Eat ‘n Park’s two-for-one breakfast buffet, a weekly tradition for Emily and her always game sister-in-law Arlene. (May we all have an Arlene in our lives when we are old and alone.) Arlene suffers a stroke, whacking her forehead on the salad bar’s sneeze glass. It’s a terrifyingly vivid scene, one that nudges Emily out of her comfort zone. And so, in the period spanning Thanksgiving to her summer family holiday, Emily stretches for a kind of rediscovery. Throughout she is lovable and heartbreaking and real. When this novel ends, in a moment of great hope and vigor, you’ll find yourself missing her terribly. A

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