Keeping Company With an 80-Year-Old
Psychiatric News
Volume 46 Number 17 page 27-27

Emily, Alone

By Stewart O'Nan


272 pages

Elderly people, especially ones who lead mundane and ordinary lives, are rarely central characters in modern literature. Fading memories, decreased processing speed, hair loss, stubbornness, and early-bird specials are some stereotypes of aging portrayed in Emily, Alone. Stewart O'Nan's depiction of 80-year-old Emily, however, incorporates so much more. O'Nan tenderly inserts Emily into the hearts and minds of readers as she struggles with end-of-life issues such as finalizing her will, reconciling with her children, and feeling isolated. Emily will not be making headlines for her heroism, but through her, readers will experience aspects of Erikson's final developmental stage with profound clarity.

Emily leads a seemingly purposeless life whose highlights include lunch at an art museum and discovering a scratch on her car. Her life is so quiet and ordinary that a phone call followed by a ringing doorbell constitutes a "madhouse," and a walk in the snow becomes "an adventure." She is practically estranged from her far-away children, forgotten by her grandchildren, and widowed for nearly a decade. There is an absence of self-pity, nonetheless, from this 80-year-old who "having lived long enough she'd come to think of everyone close to her with a helpless tenderness, accepting that life was hard and people did their best."

Emily does show signs of susceptibility to mental illness characteristic of many in her age group and social situation. Reading about how Emily "attended so many funerals she'd become a critic," one is left with a foreboding sense that her own death might be a short chapter away. If she doesn't succumb to a terrible flu first, Emily is at risk for developing severe depression. She is already drinking wine nightly and has intermittent exacerbations of anxiety. One heart-wrenching moment occurs when Emily anxiously waits for thank-you notes from her grandchildren, which never come.

Emily, Alone is a matter-of-fact novel about growing old. O'Nan illuminates his main character with such detail and precision that readers can almost taste her toothpaste, smell her breakfast, and palpate her emotions. Emily, like most people, did not have a dramatic life. This novel puts into words the natural process of aging and reminds us that an ordinary life can be compelling all the same. 27_2.inline-graphic-1.gif

Interactive Graphics


Citing articles are presented as examples only. In non-demo SCM6 implementation, integration with CrossRef’s "Cited By" API will populate this tab (http://www.crossref.org/citedby.html).
Related Articles