Another quietly poignant character study from O’Nan (Songs for the Missing, 2008, etc.), this one tracing the daily routines and pensive inner life of an elderly widow.
Emily Maxwell, newly bereaved in Wish You Were Here (2002), is now more or less accustomed to life without her beloved husband Henry. His death and the more recent loss of her best friend Louise are still painful, but she’s adjusted. She has her aging dog Rufus for company; she’s a regular churchgoer; she reads and listens to classical music; every Tuesday she drives with her sister-in-law Arlene from their separate homes in Pittsburgh to the suburban Eat ‘n Park’s two-for-one breakfast buffet. Arlene’s collapse at the restaurant dramatically closes the first chapter, but otherwise O’Nan’s low-key narrative bears out Emily’s uneasy sense that “she was at an age where all was stillness and waiting.” Holiday visits from her children underscore fraught family relations. Daughter Margaret, a recovering alcoholic in shaky economic circumstances, has always annoyed Emily with her messy feelings and disorganized ways. Son Kenneth is dutiful but reserved; Emily and his wife Lisa dislike each other. Her four grandchildren are in college or beginning careers; “it was hard to follow their lives from a distance.” Emily is well aware that she too distanced herself from her family when she married the more privileged Henry, and her unsentimental musings over past and present relationships form the novel’s emotional core as nine months unfold from November 2007 to the following July. O’Nan gently depicts Emily—inclined to be as critical of herself as of those who don’t meet her exacting, old-fashioned standards—trying to judge less and accept more. She doesn’t change so much as let go, learning that an existence diminished by age and loss is nonetheless precious for the pleasures that remain: gardening in the spring, going through childhood mementoes, simply knowing that she has lived, loved and endured.
Rueful and autumnal, but very moving.