Afterlife, Julia Alvarez, Algonquin Books, 2020, 256 pp
I read this for my One Book At A Time reading group. I loved it.
I have a vague memory of having read How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, this author's first novel, about four sisters adapting to New York City after being uprooted from their Dominican Republic home. All I remember is that I did not like it much, found the sisters too flighty and self-involved. I think that says more about me as a reader back then than about Julia Alvarez as an author.
Afterlife, her first adult novel in over 14 years, centers on Antonia; a senior woman, a retired professor of literature and a devastated new widow. This is an author writing what she knows (some of the story feels autobiographical) and what she doesn't know (she still has her husband.)
While Antonia is trying and mostly failing to deal with her bereavement, she is hit from all sides by the suffering of others, including her three sisters and an undocumented pregnant Mexican teen who shows up in her neighborhood. With all these distractions and calls upon her to assist others she finds a way to go on living, with new purpose and hope.
I loved the writing, which is as light as a backyard bird and as full of emotion and imagery as a poem. Antonia's mind and soul are full of literary references from the books she has read and taught for most of her life. Those insights provide sustenance but also require realignment when brought to bear on real life.
I can't say I loved all the characters because many are unlikable but I found empathy for them. Those sisters are just as self-involved and out of control emotionally, while equally bound by their loyalty to each other, as the Garcia sisters were.
All is leavened by moments of almost laugh-out-loud humor, keeping the dark tragedies of the story from overwhelming the tale. I felt cared for as a reader by this largehearted author.
Depending on the day you ask, I still sometimes feel like a 40-something woman but in truth I am in the same age bracket as Julia Alvarez. That may be why I felt her story so deeply. Work, family, politics, loss, can all be so disappointing. Novels like this keep me going when I need encouragement.