Julia Alvarez’s new novel, “Afterlife”, is one of those relatively short but nearly perfect novels that I used to associate so strongly with the late Anita Brookner’s fiction. It’s beautifully written, and its tone subtle and elegant, just pitch perfect. The narrator/protagonist, Antonia, has just retired from teaching in a small college in Vermont (in real life, the author had taught at Middlebury College in Vermont (from which I was graduated). Looking forward to a new life with her activist/doctor husband in a rural part of Vermont that has its new, fair share of illegal immigrants from Mexico/Central America, Antonia (“Toni”), while awaiting her husband’s arrival at an area restaurant, learns that he’s died of a heart attack en route, and her life collapses: Alvarez’s descriptions of Antonia’s shock and later feelings of depression are written with such grace, such understatement, that this life-shattering event is even more highlighted than a different kind of writer might pursue.
Antonia (who is also Mexican born) is now faced with, as she sees it, no future (the afterlife of the title). Her best moments in her life are memories of words, of poems, of lines from books she’s read and taught (gorgeous writing, this) and she’s facing a future with no identity and no purpose. A subtheme of the novel is her relationship with her three volatile sisters (they’re all originally immigrants from South of our border). The sibling rivalries amongst these women are beautifully rendered; each sister, as an adult, behaves more or less in character, so that the other sisters react accordingly, too; their youngest sister Izzy has gone missing on her way to meet the other sisters; although a therapist herself, the other three are concerned that she may be bipolar and in need of psychiatric intervention; others just see her as ebullient and eccentric. How this theme works itself out is part of Antonia’s healing.
Antonia’s nearest neighbor, a dairy farmer, has been using illegal immigrant labor to keep his farm afloat financially, and when Antonia meets one of these young men, who’s come to fix parts of her house, he begs to use her phone to call his girlfriend, who is en route from Mexico to Vermont via Colorado. So we find Antonia brought back into the world of the living via her sisters and this young Mexican man. He and his girlfriend represent both The Other and The Stranger, both critically important concepts in today’s America. Suffice is to say that although Antonia believes that her husband was the activist of the marriage, she finds herself increasingly helping the young man, whose very pregnant girlfriend she finds, one evening, hidden in her own garage for safety. She brings into action an entire network of people who will help this young couple find their way home. These dual plot lines are fascinating and in many ways parallel one another; Toni is always seeking some “sign” from her late husband about what to do with her own “afterlife”, not realizing until later in the novel that her own afterlife is a product of her life together with her late husband. There’s a very sympathetic sheriff in the area, who’s aware of the migrants but chooses to leave them be (which is a common Vermont trait: historically, people move to Vermont to be left alone).
After both narratives have played out, Antonia has joined a group of women studying flower arranging and other Asian techniques for relaxation and personal growth; when the teacher deliberately breaks a beautiful tray and yet puts it back together with ancient Japanese techniques, we the readers understand that the newly reformed tray is much like Antonia; first broken, then repaired and made more beautiful in the process.
Alvarez writes the most beautiful sentences; Antonia’s internal meditations and thoughts of poetry are rendered with such elegance and sophistication that the writing of this novel itself is its own narrative as well. Antonia’s growth from wretched widow to fully formed and transformed older but active woman is a gorgeous journey, rendered in language so seductive that the reader can’t help but watch with delight as Antonia comes back to life, to the journey that’s now hers alone, but whose path was set long ago.