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After nearly 15 years, bestselling and critically acclaimed author Julia Alvarez has made a triumphant return to the world of adult literature with AFTERLIFE. Best known for such works as HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS and IN THE TIME OF THE BUTTERFLIES, Alvarez is renowned for breaking boundaries and straddling borders between Latin American and American literature, as well as portraying the struggles of cultural hybridization and the integration of immigrants into American life. In AFTERLIFE, she introduces her readers to Antonia Vega, a Dominican writer who, after creating a warm and fulfilling life in America for decades, has just had the rug pulled out from under her.

At the start of the book, Antonia is awaiting her husband Sam’s arrival at a restaurant where the two will celebrate her recent retirement from teaching English at a local college in their home state of Vermont. In broken, lyrical language, Antonia relates the terror of the moment when she realizes that he will never make it, as he has suffered an aortic aneurysm en route to the restaurant. Alone, lacking the routine of her former career as a professor and novelist, and intellectually restless, she must create an “after life” for herself even as she longs for Sam in his own afterlife.

Although Antonia feels like she is ready to finally put herself first and carve out a better fitting identity, she is soon faced with an existential crisis. Mario, an undocumented Mexican worker at her neighbor’s dairy farm, has just revealed that his girlfriend, Estela, is no longer in Mexico, but has arrived in Colorado with the help of coyotes, and he needs help getting her on a bus to Vermont. To make matters worse, he has not told his boss, Roger, that they are expecting a visitor, and he wonders if Antonia, with her guest bedroom and comfortable home, would be willing to help. Antonia is aware that Sam would know exactly what to do and would likely offer up as much help as they could give, but she worries that she is not equipped to make choices like these alone. With her moral decision echoing the larger national conversation of how citizens can help or betray their undocumented neighbors, she ruminates on what it means to be a good neighbor and act with love.

"Though it centers on human tragedy, AFTERLIFE is full of a resounding hope that comes in the smallest of moments, the ones where we act with love."

Through flashbacks and snippets of Sam’s voice in her head, we learn that while they were liberal and active in their beliefs, he had a certain fervor for activism that she often found difficult to share. As an immigrant herself, Antonia felt more comfortable not drawing attention to her voice, worried that she would become a spokesperson for her fellow Latin Americans, especially the newly arrived undocumented ones who work for the farmers in her rural town. Now, with Sam not around to bolster her and encourage her to act with love and fight for what is right, she struggles to find an identity or rhythm that suits her. Should she bring up the plight of undocumented workers at dinner parties with her educated peers? Should she offer to translate for local businesses with Spanish-speaking clientele? Is it really so wrong to put on her own “oxygen mask” first and recover from her painful loss before beginning to assist others? As much as Antonia wants to help, she feels burdened by the chore of being the middleman, especially when it comes to Mario.

As she struggles with her decision to help Mario explain his new situation to his boss, Antonia prepares to travel to Chicago to celebrate her 66th birthday with her sister, Tilly. As one of four sisters, she finds comfort in the “sisterhood,” as they call themselves, and their alternating bouts of contention and love. Their sibling drama and moments of hilarity add a certain levity to the plight of Mario and Estela, but they, too, are dealing with a crisis: their eldest sister, Izzy, a retired therapist who is now known for her erratic and passionate outbursts, has been acting even stranger than usual, and the sisterhood feels that it is time to check in on their beloved but kooky sibling. They are relieved when she decides to join them all in Chicago, but when she does not arrive on time and stops answering her phone, they fear she is far more unstable than they realized. With the fourth sister, Mona, accompanying them, the women hit the pavement to try to find and help Izzy.

Antonia returns home to find that Mario’s girlfriend has arrived --- and she has been hiding a huge surprise. With their relationship tense, Estela has been hiding out in Antonia’s garage, and now it is up to Antonia to make sure she gets the care she needs while still attempting to massage and fix the young girl’s relationship with an increasingly stubborn Mario. Weaving back and forth between finding her sister and helping Mario, Antonia finds herself caught between loyalty and love, being a good citizen and being a decent person. With both situations growing worse and more precarious by the moment, she must grapple with questions of identity, privilege and family dynamics.

Antonia is an interesting choice for a protagonist, as she is not wholly sympathetic or wholly good. She wrestles with moral questions, has a tendency to quote classic literature in a way that distances her from important conversations, and is very much still grieving the loss of her husband, which often makes her feel isolated from her supporting characters. The question of privilege is an especially intriguing one in AFTERLIFE, as Antonia knows she has a good life --- she married a doctor, taught English to native speakers, and enjoys a comfortable life in rural Vermont --- but still she must deal with neighbors calling her Mexican and grouping her in with their undocumented farmhands and waitresses to whom they pay meager wages and allow even fewer rights. Her aversion to becoming an activist or spokesperson feels natural in Alvarez’s hands; she is by no means a bad person, just a real one.

The highlight of the novel is the sisterhood’s dynamics, as it is rare to see sibling rivalries and bickerings play out in adult characters. Alvarez shows that no one knows us as well as our sisters --- and no one can infuriate us as much, either. The sisterhood’s quest to find their unstable sister anchors the book and provides structure to the uncertainty of Mario and Estela’s plight, along with bringing up thought-provoking discussions about mental illness, the rights of senior citizens, and the twisted ties of family dynamics and hierarchies. Even better, their dialogue is spot on, whether they are gossiping, bemoaning long-held slights, or playing out common rivalries.

Though it centers on human tragedy, AFTERLIFE is full of a resounding hope that comes in the smallest of moments, the ones where we act with love. Neither Alvarez nor her book can solve the problems of social imbalance, ignorance or racism, but they can --- and do --- remind us that we must be present in one another’s lives and that the age-old mantra of putting on one’s own oxygen mask first only applies to those with the privilege to do so. While our identities and self-assurances cannot come from one another, in AFTERLIFE, Alvarez proves that our human experiences must, and the more we allow the plights of others to bleed into our own perspectives, the more we can let love work its magic.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on April 17, 2020

by Julia Alvarez

  • Publication Date: April 6, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1643751360
  • ISBN-13: 9781643751368