Startling, unexpected, unknown?

Stewart O’Nan begins his book Emily Alone with a quote from Virginia Woolf.

“Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life—startling, unexpected, unknown?”

Yes, of course, it could be. That’s O’Nan’s answer in this story of Emily, past 80, a widow whose grown children have long moved away.

O’Nan’s thoughtful portrayal of Emily’s daily life as she attends a friend’s funeral, gets ready for a Christmas visit from her son and grandchildren and buys a new car are rich with detail.

Emily is a little fearful when she buys a cobalt-blue ‘07 Outback wagon with “the largest check she’d ever written.” Is she making “a grave mistake?

She asks Betty: “It’s not too much, is it? I don’t want to be like one of those middle-aged men who buys a Porsche.”

When the vet says that her springer Rufus has gained too much weight, Emily puts him on a strict diet, giving him celery sticks, which he crunches as if they are treats.

Emily visits the cemetery where her parents are buried and asks herself: “Why did she expect, after all these years, to suddenly come to some new understanding?”

But she does gain a glimpse of new understanding and leaves feeling both lucky and grateful.

Finally, she packs her new car, stops to pick up her sister-in-law Arlene and heads for Chautauqua for a week’s vacation with her two children and grandchildren.

“And we’re off!” Arlene says.

“Yes,” Emily says. “We most certainly are.”

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