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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2010-12-13
- Reviewer: Staff
O'Nan checks back in with the Maxwell family from Wish You Were Here in this bracingly unsentimental, ruefully humorous, and unsparingly candid novel about the emotional and physical travails of old age. At 80, widow Emily Maxwell has become dependent on her equally aged sister-in-law, Arlene, to chauffeur them to the rounds of Pittsburgh's country club dinners, flower shows, museums, and increasingly frequent funerals. After Arlene has a stroke, Emily is forced into reclaiming her independence, but she remains clear-eyed about her diminishing future and what she can expect of her two adult children and four grandchildren, giving O'Nan the opportunity and space to expertly play out the misunderstandings, disagreements, and resentments among parents and their grown children. Emily fears saying the wrong things (yet often does) and frets about her grandchildren, who are uninterested in family traditions and lax with thank-you notes. The unhurried plot follows Emily from a lonely Thanksgiving with Arlene to a Christmas visit from her daughter and two grandchildren, Easter with her son and his children, and the eve of her summer departure to Chautauqua. During this time, friends and acquaintances die, Emily observes the deterioration of the neighborhoods she's known for decades, and she continues to converse with her old dog, Rufus. Efficient, practical, stubborn, frugal, and a lover of crosswords, church services, and baroque music, the closely observed Emily is a sort of contemporary Mrs. Bridge, and O'Nan's depiction of her attempts to sustain optimism and energy during the late stage of her life achieves a rare resonance. (Mar.)
A memorable woman stands alone
The latest novel by Stewart O'Nan (Speed Queen) is an ideal book for a rainy, tea-sipping afternoon. There's a calm, enveloping tone to the story that belies its unflinching exploration of a woman's chronically discontented heart. Readers of O'Nan's earlier novel Wish You Were Here will recognize the Emily of the title as Emily Maxwell, now 80 and widowed and living alone with her dog, Rufus, in a classy residential neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Her husband died years ago, and her children have moved to other parts of the country with their own families. She has remained close to her late husband's sister, Arlene, and the two of them make weekly forays in Arlene's car to a breakfast buffet that offers a two-for-one deal on Tuesdays.
This weekly brunch trip is both the high and the low point of Emily's week. And it's on one of these outings that we first catch a glimmer of Emily's odd blend of affection, dependence and resentment toward those she's closest to, a complicated attitude she holds without seeming to be aware of it herself. When Arlene collapses in a fainting spell at the buffet, Emily is suddenly forced into an independence she'd forgotten she could manage. Taking care of her sister-in-law and herself, and doing a good job of it, gives her a new confidence as she surveys her life and starts the hard work of reconciling herself to its approaching end.
Not much actually happens in the story; its chief pleasure comes from unraveling this little old lady's messy tangle of emotions. O'Nan never retreats from Emily's less flattering qualities: she means well, but she can be hypercritical, tight with money, and hung up on outmoded courtesies, and she's consistently surprised when others fail to take her own bleak view of things. It's refreshing to see someone who could've been a stock character drawn so fully. In fact all the women in the book are well-realized; the men are peripheral, opaque or simply beside the point. That you never really miss them is a testament to Emily's strength and complexity. She holds her own.
Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.