Emily Alone is a sequel to O'Nan's 2002 novel, Wish You Were Here, which I have not read. 80-year-old Emily Maxwell has settled into widowhood. Living far from her children and grandchild, she relies on her dog and her sister-in-law Arlene for regular companionship. In the course of the book, she cares for Arlene after a hospital stay, buys her first new car, negotiates with her kids over holiday visits, frets over her will and final arrangements, and weathers the deaths of several old friends.
Understand: there is no real story here, no plot to speak of. The strength of the book is Emily's voice: intelligent, vulnerable but seldom self-pitying, a tad controlling, perhaps a hair judgmental but not mean or aggressive. O'Nan does some interesting things with perspective here. While a third-person narration, we are definitely inside Emily's head most of the time, yet the reader can certainly step outside occasionally and see how her kids, for example, might occasionally be frustrated or bemused by her.
The realism of the character study is supported by an accumulation of ordinary detail, and I mean ordinary. How many novelists would devote any time at all to describing the difficulty of opening an economy three-pack of tissues? I love Stewart O'Nan.