Sometimes fiction is so spot-on believable, I am convinced the author must have walked in the shoes of a particular character. I recently read Emily, Alone (2011) by Stewart O’Nan and have come to believe that he was once an 80-year-old widow.
I should not be surprised. My introduction to O’Nan’s work was Last Night at the Lobster (2008), a novel about the final shift of a seafood restaurant before it closed for good. It really resonated with me as a long-ago waitress and barkeep. Years after reading Lobster, I caught myself thinking that I once worked at the Red Lobster, so impeccably detailed was O’Nan’s portrayal of the place and staff.
With Emily, Alone, I had this déjà vu feeling. A widow in her 80s, Emily lives independently; her sister-in-law, Arlene, lives nearby. Emily lost her confidence behind the wheel and now Arlene does the driving. When Arlene faints one day while they are out, Emily has to drive home. Having the use of Arlene’s car for a few days inspires her to get her old vehicle out of the garage. After a few weeks and much thoughtful deliberation, she goes on her own to the dealership to buy a new car. With that, Emily’s independence, like her driving skills, is renewed with an almost ironic sense that she is reversing her dependence on others at this time in her life.
Emily is someone you may know. For me, she is my grandmother, and Arlene is my Great Aunt Anne, Gram’s sister-in-law. Gram and Anne lived in neighboring garden apartments in East Orange, NJ, when I was growing up. While they did not enjoy Emily’s longevity, to me they were just as remarkable. Like Emily and Arlene, my grandmother and great aunt did things together out of habit and convenience, and because so many of their friends had died. They were just as frugal, enjoyed order and routine, and cared only about their children’s happiness.
The charm and richness of Emily, Alone is in the details of her life. This novel made me wish I had known my grandmother and great aunt better. After reading the book, I feel I have had a second chance to see the world from their point of view. If I loved Last Night at the Lobster because it took me back to my happy restaurant days, I loved Emily, Alone because this insightful book takes me back to my grandmother and great aunt and helps me learn a little more about who they might have been to each other and to me. Thank you, Stewart O’Nan, for this glimpse into the life of Emily, aging successfully, independent and strong.