In Stewart O’Nan’s latest engaging and immersive novel, he revisits the Maxwell family of Pittsburgh—a family his readers have come to know well from two earlier novels, Wish You Were Here (2002) and Emily, Alone (2011), which chronicled the early years of Emily Maxwell’s widowhood. This latest Maxwell family portrait returns to the year 1998 and focuses on 75-year-old Henry—retired and feeling somewhat purposeless—filling his days with garden chores, errands and repairing small appliances in his basement workshop.
One of O’Nan’s gifts is his ability to craft his characters with such uncanny attention to detail that the reader comes to care for them as the author does. So it is with Henry, whom we get to know more intimately as each chapter chronicles an event in his past or one aspect of his now circumscribed life.
In one, he reminisces about his dislike of piano lessons as a child until he developed a crush on his second teacher. (The annual recital will bring back memories for many readers.) Henry’s ritualized rotation of garden jobs according to the season—pruning, leaf-raking, taking down birdhouses, hanging up feeders—helps fill his days, as do the spring and summer golf outings with his three buddies.
Thanksgiving is the same each year as well. Henry and Emily’s son and daughter and their families arrive Wednesday night, when lasagna is served, and the next day’s feast always starts with shrimp cocktail and spinach dip. Several chapters chronicle the annual vacation spent at the family cabin on Lake Chautauqua: Henry and Emily open it up a few days before the kids and grandkids arrive, and then everyone pitches in with cleaning the porch, installing screens, painting the weathered window sills, stocking the refrigerator, etc. Henry is in his glory during these days—assigning everyone a job and checking on their progress.
It isn’t necessary to have read the other novels in O’Nan’s Maxwell family saga to enjoy Henry, Himself. But readers who enjoy this poignant, everyman story will surely want to read them next. His stories of one upper-middle-class Pittsburgh family will resonate with many readers, especially fans of Anne Tyler’s character-driven novels set in Baltimore.