Happy New Year everyone. Such a cliche yet.... 2012 sounds good to me. Ever the cockeyed optimist, I've scanned the headlines this morning, the world is in a mess, killing over religion, tribal warfare continues unabated, and yet I still have a deep seated notion that this year may bring some respite from the economic trials of the last several years.
Now if we could just fast forward to November and get this ridiculous election over with, let Obama get on with the sisyphian task of pulling our country out of the doldrums.....but oh yes, I'm here to speak about books, aren't I?
Let me begin the new year by saying that I believe Stewart O'Nan is probably one of America's finest novelists to have published in the last decade. I will kick off the year's discussion group at the library with his most recent novel, Emily, Alone, the wondrous sequel to his first novel about the Maxwell family, Wish You Were Here.
What does O'Nan write about, you may ask. My answer, everything and nothing. Remarkably, this is a novelist who can explain the entire human condition through the prism of one week with one family in one town. He excels at describing the minutiae of every day life in a manner than makes you want to smack your head and say "of course, that's it exactly! Why couldn't I think of that?" But we don't, which is why we are readers and not writers.
Emily is so familiar to me that I feel I've known her all my life. She is a kinder, gentler Olive Kitteridge; she is me, my stepmother Edith, my mother Penny, my sister Cynthia. She's a universal character captured so perfectly by O'Nan that I marvel at his powers of observation.
Many of my "regular" book club attendees have told me that they may not come to this discussion. They found the novel too depressing, they related too closely to this woman at the tail end of her life, planning for her demise. I'm amazed at these ladies. Rather than depressing I found this novel inspiring. I love Emily. I aspire to be like her.
Pushing 80, Emily still lives in her family home with her constant companion, Rufus. She misses her husband tremendously, speaks to him in a constant stream of consciousness that is entirely believeable and honest. Her discussions with her dog are even more spot on.
Her dearest companion, her sister-in-law Arlene, another independent senior , accompanies her to their friends' funerals, to the opera, to their "club," a throwback to past glory days. Even as they remind each other that their time is growing short, they manage to fill each day with worthwhile activity and joy in the little things, a good book, a radio show, a good meal, a cocktail.
Emily's relationships with her children, Ken and Margaret, have long been frought with anxiety. Unmet expectations are a normal part of the parent/child bond. What parent doesn't want more for their kids than they had themselves? What child doesn't sometimes feel that they've let their parents down? Underachieved? How many times do we bite our tongues to keep the peace at family gatherings?
Stewart O'Nan is a master. I don't know what else to say. I can't wait to have this discussion with my group, hoping I'm not a lone voice in the wilderness of appreciation of this low-key, understated talent. I'm already looking forward to his next release, The Odds, A Love Story, coming soon to a library, bookstore, kindle, nook, near you!