Monday, May 18, 2015


Reading Stewart O'Nan's 2011 novel Emily, Alone I kept thinking of Mrs. Bridge, the terrific 1959 novel by Evan S. Connell Jr. Each novel is a character portrait of an upper-middle class woman who feels trapped in the life she has made for herself, or which has been made for her. Connell ends his novel with a classic scene that symbolizes both the kind of woman Mrs. Bridge is and the life she leads. Her car stalls as she is pulling out of her garage, and she cannot open any of the doors. Unable to get anyone's attention, for there is no one around, she simply sits there, her gloved hands folded in her lap, waiting to be rescued.

Emily Maxwell, the focus of O'Nan's story, is older than India Bridge, but is a similar kind of woman. Recently widowed by her beloved Henry, she struggles to stay in contact with her distant children and grandchildren and to, as much as possible, maintain the life she has been living for years, usually now in the company of her best friend, Arlene, a woman in similar circumstances.

Yet as the novel progresses in its brief, episodic chapters (again, much like Mrs. Bridge), we discover, as does Emily herself, she is living a lie. She listens to classical music on the radio all day every day, yet she dislikes most of what she hears. She attends The Nutcracker every year at Christmas, even though she hasn't enjoyed it in years. She doesn't even like spending so much time with Arlene.

As a girl, Emily was even more rebellious than her daughter, Margaret, ever was, yet where is that rebellion now? Like Mrs. Bridge caught in her own garage, Emily is trapped, not just by advancing age and declining health, but by a life that doesn't suit her anymore, if it ever did.

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