Drama is in the details

A gentle portrait of a woman in her twilight years — her small everyday victories and setbacks — turns an ordinary life into the extraordinary

By Mameve Medwed
Globe Correspondent / March 20, 2011

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What a relief: No vampires, zombies, fashionistas, shopaholics; no child abuse, alternate universes, cyber anything; and no violent crime (only a scratched car door) mark Stewart O’Nan’s lovely, lyrical, leisurely paced portrait of 80-year-old Emily Maxwell. A sequel to O’Nan’s “Wish You Were Here’’ (in which the Maxwell family spends one last week at their soon-to-be-sold summer house), this poignant novel — his 13th — stands on its own. Though, at first, Emily’s world seems measured out in coffee spoons, the quotidian details supply their own drama and beauty, underscoring the small triumphs and losses of daily life: a meal with a discount coupon, a garden, the companionship of an old dog, the comfort of music, a Mother’s Day phone call, a parking space, a cold caught from a grandchild, the noisy construction across the street, a neighbor naked in the moonlight, a friend’s new eyeglasses.

Emily, who’d “never wanted to be eighty . . . [and] never wanted to outlive Henry,’’ finds herself both 80 and widowed. She lives alone with her failing dog, Rufus. Henry’s tools are still lined up in the basement, his Hamilton watch strapped to her wrist. Though her son and daughter are grown with children of their own, the old family tensions, now muted, still surface. Horrified to recognize her own temper echoed in Margaret, her daughter, Emily “wished she could go back and apologize to those closest to her . . . how did her mother and father ever put up with her?’’ Modern parenthood confuses her. “She came from a place and a generation that didn’t believe . . . that you could — or should — forgive your own sins.’’ She carefully calibrates family conversations, afraid of saying the wrong thing. But she grows to appreciate her daughter, divorced and sober after a stint in rehab, and sends her regular checks; she understands that if Margaret inherited her temper, Kenneth has inherited her attention to detail, and she can rely on him. Despite the death of friends whose nearby houses sport for-sale signs, Emily counts herself lucky; she treasures her dog, visits with her grandchildren, the annual family summer vacation, and, especially, her unchanging routine.

But change comes anyway. At the novel’s start, Arlene, Emily’s sister-in-law and best friend, is driving Emily to their weekly two-for-one breakfast at the Eat ’n Park buffet. Because Henry claimed sole possession of the steering wheel when they were married, in his absence Emily has come to rely on the chauffeuring of Arlene, whose bad eyes and disregard for the rules of the road make every excursion feel like their last. This day, Arlene, plate piled high on the other side of the sneeze guard, starts to speak; her eyes bulge; she topples over.

Forced to follow the EMTs in Arlene’s car, Emily discovers “she was much less fearful behind the wheel than riding beside Arlene.’’ Arlene’s sudden illness “[f]or lack of anything better, they were calling it an episode’’ becomes the catalyst for Emily’s new-found independence. She backs her husband’s ’82 Oldsmobile out of the garage. Eventually she buys herself a gleaming Subaru and ventures beyond her Pittsburgh neighborhood. Visiting Arlene in the hospital, she relishes conversation with the nurses and with Arlene’s roommate in the next bed — “. . . the easy give and take excited her, the way driving made her feel surprisingly alive, part of something larger again.’’

Once Arlene is released, Emily takes charge; she drives Arlene to the club, to exhibits, and concerts. She monitors the comings and goings on her street. By herself, she travels to her hometown to visit her parents’ graves. When memories of Henry flood her, she finds solace in music, in her garden, in the change of seasons. She assembles all the documents her children will need after her death and has the talk with each of them. Reading the obituaries, “[s]he noted those close to her age and younger, but refused to brood on them.’’ She makes holiday plans. While fully engaged in life, she still understands that she’s at the end of it.

Emily is as authentic a character as any who ever walked the pages of a novel. She could be our grandmother, our mother, our next-door neighbor, our aunt. Our self. Her ups and downs are our own. Despite the sadness of inevitable loss, Emily delights in comic observations. She and Arlene attend funerals, where they hilariously assess the quality of food at the reception and the garishness of the flower arrangements. She disdains Arlene’s too-dark lipstick and overly fruity perfume. She savors senior citizen talk of broken hips and falls, relishes the glee with which Arlene describes a mutual friend: “You should see her. She looks awful.’’ She hopes that a grandson will find a girl to love him “despite his awkwardness and terrible hair.’’ She’s furious that someone else had chosen the music she’d picked for her own funeral. Accustomed to living alone, “she’d forgotten how exhausting other people could be.’’

In a portrait filled with both joy and rue, O’Nan does not wield a wide brush across a vast canvas but, rather, offers up an exquisite miniature. Just as Emily prefers Van Gogh’s depiction of a branch of an almond tree over the more spectacular “Sunflowers,’’ so, too, do we readers appreciate an ordinary life made, by its quiet rendering, extraordinary. No matter her — and our — unavoidable end, Emily cherishes “every day [as] another chance’’ and teaches us that small moments not only count but also endure.

Mameve Medwed is the author of five novels, the most recent, “Of Men and Their Mothers.’’ She can be reached at mameve@mameve

By Stewart O’Nan
Viking, 255 pp., $25.95