The acclaimed Dominican American writer Julia Alvarez is known as one of the best chroniclers of sisterhood. In the early 1990s she gained success with her landmark books, “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” (1991), the tale of sisters from the Dominican Republic adjusting to life after immigration to the United States, and “In the Time of the Butterflies” (1994), about sisters in varying stages of rebellion against the Trujillo dictatorship. Then she took almost 15 years off from writing adult fiction and became a prolific author of children’s and young adult books. Fortunately, she’s returned to grownup fiction with “Afterlife” (Algonguin) another lovely tale with echoes of her Dominican heritage. And, rather than concentrating on the coming-of-age experience, this book tackles the other end of the stick: old age and what happens when the golden years suddenly fade into something unexpected.
The story begins with a flurry of loss. Set in Vermont, the protagonist is Antonia Vega, a writer and beloved retired English professor who immigrated from the Dominican Republic in her youth. Antonia was widowed after her husband Sam’s sudden death from a fatal aneurysm while driving to his retirement party (this is no spoiler; the opening pages deliver this news).
The sudden death charts Antonia on a course she’d really rather not take. Stunned, she “cannot comprehend how someone she loved … can be nothing but dust/unread emails, fragments, unpaid bills, memories.” The home that Antonia and Sam built together no longer feels like a place of security, but instead a shaky boat on a sea of loss. “Late afternoons as the day wanes, in bed in the middle of the night, in spite of her efforts, she finds herself at the outer edge where, in the old maps, the world drops off, and beyond is terra incognita …” writes Alvarez. “Countless times a day, and night, she pulls herself back from this edge. If not for herself, then for the others: her three sisters, a few old aunties, nieces and nephews.” She misses the young people she used to teach and the words they shared, but mostly she grieves for Sam, talking to him often in her head, wondering about his afterlife and trying to figure out her own.
The turmoil of life has a way of disrupting mourning, and this is no different for Antonia. With relentless sorrow, she dreads her 66th birthday and does not wish to celebrate, but her concerned sisters do. Tilly, Izzy and Mona – each born about 11 months apart and spread out across the U.S. – have alternated phone calls to Antonia since Sam’s death, until Tilly invites them to Chicago to try to celebrate Antonia’s birthday. The sisters’ dynamic relationship is humorous and, at times, argumentative, but it comes from deep-rooted love.
Added to this is a second plot that tests Antonia’s faith in humanity. It involves a young illegal Mexican migrant worker, Mario, who lives on the farm next to Antonia’s Vermont home. Mario does many chores for Antonia and he has asked her to help get his girlfriend, Estela, from the coyotes who brought her across the border. They are demanding more money to send her any farther Colorado. Then, when the teenage Estela shows up in Vermont very, very pregnant with another man’s child, Mario dumps her on Antonia’s doorstep.
Antonia is torn between wanting to help, as her late doctor husband – widely beloved for his volunteer work and empathy – would have done, and wanting to flee, which is more her style. Antonia reluctantly arranges for Estela’s prenatal care. This sets in motion a series of events that push Antonia to re-connect with society and navigate a broken immigration system. Through this quandary, Antonia and the reader examine whom we consider our neighbor and Alvarez addresses the moral decisions that permeate our national conversation, which excludes migrant communities from claiming their contributions to this country.
After helping Estela, Antonia heads to the reunion in Chicago for her birthday weekend. But Izzy, the eldest and least dependable, and who has struggled for years with untreated bi-polar disorder, never arrives. She is completely incommunicado. A grand scheme involving an artist colony in western Massachusetts and, later, some llamas, pull Antonia off course.
As the panicked sisters hire a private eye and launch into action to track Izzy down, as Estela gives birth, as a crackdown by “La Migra” looms, Antonia has many reasons to understand why and how you go on living after life as you knew it disappears. She has always relied on the comforts of literature, and the book is full of marvelous quotes from Rilke, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson and others. However, now she will learn the unexpected blessing of the needs of others.
Izzy’s fate will take surprising turns, as will the relationship between Mario and Estela, as Antonia tries to figure out what she can do for all of them and for herself. Alvarez writes with knowing warmth about how well sisters know how to push on each other’s bruises and how powerfully they can lift each other up.
Ultimately, all the emotional havoc has a positive effect, and because Alvarez is a master storyteller, she gathers the broken fragments of Antonia’s life to form a whole. The book – a quick and concise read – ends with Antonia learning the Japanese repair technique kintsugi, where repairs to cracked pottery are not concealed but instead highlighted with gold. The final message is obvious: in periods of loss and emptiness there is often something better – a person, an opportunity, a perspective – waiting to upset that space, and to provide a new life after death.