Good read: Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan

There are gazillions of books in this world, which is why I never heard of Stewart O’Nan until I read a paragraph-long review in the New Yorker of his latest novel, Emily, Alone.

I wanted to read the novel because it is set in Pittsburgh, where I was born and grew up, and because it involves a trip to Chautauqua, New York, a place I discovered just 2 years ago. It is a particular treat to read someone else’s take on places you know.

Remember that cliched advice to writers: “when you don’t know what to do, have someone walk into the room with a gun”? I’ve read entire novels built on that advice—apparently the authors never knew what to do. These novels are not shocking and in the end not even interesting. They are a bore.

O’Nan’s novel does open with what might, metaphorically speaking, be someone walking in with a gun: Emily Maxwell, the widowed elderly matriarch of the Maxwell clan, takes a trip to Eat’N Park with her sister-in-law Arlene. Arlene faints at the breakfast bar. However, this is a popgun of an event. Arlene is fine. She is examined and discharged from the hospital and goes on much as before.

However, Arlene’s medical scare wakens Emily on a deep level. She finds herself becoming more engaged with life.

O’Nan creates a compulsively readable story out of the ordinary events of Emily’s life. A trip to church. Classical music on the local public radio station. Driving. Shopping. A Christmas visit from her daughter and grandchildren.  Hiding all the liquor bottles in the house so Emily’s daughter, a recovering alcoholic, won’t see them.

This book is short: only 255 pages. That is good. The level of detail could get wearing in a long novel, but it is just right in this one.

Caveat: I am only halfway through Emily, Alone. I don’t know whether all this beautiful detailing will add up to a powerful portrait of Emily and her world, or whether it will just remain beautiful detailing. Either way, reading this novel has been time well spent