Afterlife by Julia Alvarez (2020) – Fiction
Grief is a weird thing. Afterlife by Julia Alvarez captures this elusive but universal feeling. This book touched me in spots that are still sore. I’ve lost two close family members in the past year which is more than I have really experienced in a long time.
Antonia, the main character of Afterlife, has just lost her husband Sam. Sam was a doctor in their small community in Vermont. Antonia is grieving. Sam died suddenly and Antonia is left to try to understand how to keep going. Antonia is a retired college literature professor and sprinkled throughout the book are lines and quotes from authors and poets, little words that Antonia says to herself to try and get through the day.
Antonia is one of four sisters. Her family immigrated from the Dominican Republic to America and Antonia has relied on books and writers to not only get her through everyday life but to understand the English language. Alvarez creates a rich backdrop with Antonia’s sisters: Izzy, Mona, and Tilly. While I don’t have sisters, their relationship reminds me of my mom and her sisters, constantly laughing and fighting and pushing each other.
Antonia would like to be left alone to mourn Sam and to quietly think about him and their life together. But life pulls her away from that quiet introspection. Izzy, the eldest sister, is going through a mental crisis and her sisters decide it is time to intervene. Antonia is expected to assist. Antonia also lives next to a dairy farm – where the head rancher employs undocumented workers. Mario, Antonia’s favorite, tells her he needs help in getting his girlfriend Estella from Mexico to Vermont. While Antonia assists, the situation becomes even more complicated when Estella appears but is pregnant and the father is not Mario.
Antonia is asked by life to intervene when she doesn’t want to. She would just like to be left quietly alone and think of Sam.
“Could that possibly be what the afterlife amounts to: an eternity of re-memberings? Over to you Sam. She talks to him in her head. You always like being the one to know. But the afterlife changed him. He no longer seems interested in having the last word.”
Everyone grieves differently. Some need people to be around them, others need space. Antonia needs space and I can relate to that. Antonia soon realizes however that she can’t have space forever. Life doesn’t work like that. Antonia begins to understand that she will never stop grieving Sam. That will always be there. But she will learn to grieve in a different way. Sam was a doctor who those in the community cherished for his kindness and generosity. Antonia realizes that she can honor him and grieve for him at the same time by inserting herself into Estella’s and Mario’s situation. She can be present in helping her sisters with Izzy. While Sam may have disappeared from this earth, she doesn’t have to just yet.
Afterlife is a short, whimsical little book that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. It’s sad, yet uplifting in a genuine way. Julia Alvarez is a accomplished writer of non-fiction, poetry, novels, and children’s books. She has won numerous honors and awards and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in recognition of her storytelling from President Obama.
Lover of the written word.