Emily, Alone (O’Nan)

I think I admire O’Nan’s work so much because he writes like I’d like to. He writes about ordinary people and daily events in ways that are both funny and wise. Though his novels are often narrow in scope (and often short), they still do speak to larger questions about the way we conduct our lives. In this case, how do we go on when we are older, and our lives and actions are neither urgent nor necessary?

Emily tries to keep herself busy. Her errands, her dog, her family, and her garden – these all give shape to her days. And she’s aware of what she’s doing – looking back on her life as the end of her days approaches. She has not turned out to be the person she wanted to be. She can’t let go of some of her past. “Though everything faded,” O’Nan writes, “nothing was ever done” (56). She has her regrets and O’Nan expresses them so eloquently: “[S]he was struck by how long life was, and how much time had passed, and she wished she could go back and apologize to those closest to her, explain that she understood now. Impossible, and yet the urge to return and be a different person never lessened, grew only more acute” (65). Who among us hasn’t felt that way?

But Emily is not morose, and neither is O’Nan. A whole (albeit) short chapter about Emily strategically re-arranging kleenex boxes to reflect the needs and priorities of each part of her house is gentle and true. We all do these things. We all know people who do these things. O’Nan, here and elsewhere, describes us all.


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