Review: Lonely by Emily White

Title: Lonely: A Memoir
Author: Emily White
Pages: 338
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Release Date: March 1, 2010
Publisher: Harper
Source: Personal Copy
Right now, loneliness is something few people are willing to admit to. There’s no need for this silence, no need for the shame and self-blame it creates. There’s nothing wrong with loneliness, and we need to start acknowledging this through a wider and more open discussion of the state.

Writing this review has been almost a month in the making. I haven't had a book affect me on such a personal level in quite some time, and trying to find the words to express my feelings has proven quite difficult - more out of fear than anything else. There will always be the snap judgements and negative opinions associated with anyone who mentions dealing with loneliness. So, here is where I issue my warning. The following review will be a little more personal than my others, thus the length will be significantly longer...more of a book review and essay rolled in to one. Feel free to stop reading here.

During her thirties, successful lawyer Emily White found herself in a university library searching for anything that would help her understand the feelings of loneliness that she was experiencing. She knew that her condition wasn't just "a mood" and she couldn't just get out there and meet others, like so many people kept suggesting.
What I wanted throughout my years of loneliness was recognition. I needed others to see and understand my state as a real problem. I needed others to ask me about it, help me through it, and view it as something valid and potentially life-altering. I also needed to hear other people talking about it.
In Lonely, Emily White combines the story of her own personal struggle with chronic loneliness with the latest research and accounts from lonely men and women that she gathered on her blog. Most of the book aims to adequately describe the different types of loneliness and their causes, while trying to dispel many of the misconceptions and stereotypes, such as the image of the needy, clingy, and dour person. There isn't much research available, and the problem isn't something that is talked about with any kind of frequency. Her main mission is to create an open dialogue to provide a starting point for further discussion of the often ignored condition.

When I first heard about Lonely, I was immediately fascinated by the idea. Having lived in three cities in three years, I have often felt isolated emotionally. When meeting with others, I feel like they only view me as the sweet and quiet one, but ignore my attempts to create a connection on a more personal one-on-one level. Loneliness is something I think everyone experiences at some point in life, especially in our very group-centered culture, so I was interested to read a memoir about someone who has struggled with it most of her life. According to White:
Loneliness and isolation are not nearly as exceptional as the media would have us believe. Whichever rate you go with -- the U.S. rate of 25 percent, the British rate of 29 percent, or the Australian rate of 33 percent -- you're left with the fact that about a quarter to a third of the population struggles with loneliness on either a long - or short-term basis.
These figures were quite surprising to me. Compared to forty years ago, our society spends more time alone or at work, and our close confidants have been replaced by more physical, commercial things. A demographic shift toward the single person household has occurred and coupled with the current economic downturn, which has resulted in the loss of the only source of companionship many people had, it's no surprise that these figures are so high.

After reading the first half of the book I was a little disappointed in the writing style - not because it was bad, but because it wasn't what was advertised. The book read more like an academic essay than a memoir, and I do wish there had been more of a focus on real life personal struggles. While at times a more clinical read, I found myself fascinated by all the factual tidbits White provided, though I may be in the minority. For a lot of the book, White focuses on making the distinction between depression and loneliness as well as explaining the different types of loneliness, such as emotional vs social, objective vs subjective, and situational vs chronic. I found the following quote particularly applicable to my own situational loneliness.
... the problem wasn't the shapeless dissatisfaction of depression, but rather a very clear and focused distress about the lack of intimacy in their lives. "I can be around people and still feel alone," says Sonia, the West Coast copywriter. "I don't feel like I make connections with people. For me, anyways, I don't necessarily feel like I'm understood or maybe cared about too much. I just feel a lack of connection with people, even when I'm around people.
Often while reading I found myself surprised at how much I could relate to in my own life. White brings up some of the characteristics associated with the condition like being overtly aware of how others perceive them, feeling a pressured restlessness, and being uncomfortable with disclosure.
Most damningly, when lonely people were surveyed, they said they were socially inhibited, telling researchers that they had trouble introducing themselves at parties, entertaining in their homes and calling people up to initiate social activities.
Overall, I was very impressed with Lonely. White did an amazing job collecting and analyzing the research regarding loneliness, and is very brave for opening herself up in this way. I know I've never talked about my issues with anyone else for fear of the exact same judgement that she mentions in her book. I can't say I recommend this book for anyone who hasn't struggled with loneliness, as it won't be as appreciated and may only come across a whiny. However, anyone who is dealing with or has dealt with this issue will probably find comfort in hearing the problem written about in a legitimate way and know that others are feeling the same.


  1. Your review is wonderful and honest and I appreciate it. I do think everyone struggles with loneliness at some point in their lives and it can be hard to figure out how to get out of it.

  2. I absolutely loved this review. I used to struggle with loneliness, to the point that it was almost debilitating. When I started developing more solitary interests and making friends at church with a group of people who were less judgmental and more accepting, I sort of threw off the shell of loneliness that had been such a huge part of my life. Part of the change had to do with forcing myself to be social and to put myself out there, regardless of how I was perceived. It was hard to do at first, and there were some pretty mortifying moments, but now it's a lot easier, and I find that I am much more able to make friends with others. Specifically those who I have things in common with. Loneliness can be horrible at times, and I remember being in a room full of people, and still feeling like I was all alone. I admire your courage for posting about such a sensitive topic.

  3. A great review, and a great book. I will addf this one to my TBR.

  4. This is such a wonderful, thoughtful review. The subject immediately grabbed me because, as you and others have said, it's not one really addressed or talked about too openly. I also love creative non-fiction -- too bad this book wasn't more memoir-ish. Still, it sounds fascinating -- I'll have to look for this at my library.

  5. This sounds like a very interesting book. I think that loneliness is something that we often don't want to talk about because we're afraid that we're going to be judged for feeling lonely in a way. It's so hard...

  6. Kathy - Thanks for stopping by! Hopefully this book would be a catalyst for someone looking for a way to deal with loneliness.

    Zibilee - Thank you so much for your kind words! You are definitely right about just putting yourself out there. Sometimes it's a just a mental obstacle that needs to be overcome. I think all people really need is that one friendly hand to reach out.

    eclecticreader - Thanks! Hope you find the book as interesting as I did.

    Audra - This was definitely fascinating because it's such a common subject that I've never thought about in more clinical terms...never really put a name to it. It might not be the most engrossing, but it's definitely worth skimming.

    Meg - I think it's very hard to talk about because so many people have a negative connotation of people who are lonely. Hopefully this book helps break those perceptions.

  7. I definitely did not stop reading, but kept right on to the end of your wonderful review.

    I have often marveled at people who seem to make friends as easily as two toddlers in a sandbox...the being alone in a crowded room feeling is one with which I can most certainly identify.

    Thank you for such a heartfelt review. :)


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