Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Life After Life

Although I am one generation away from needing "elder care" for myself, I have spent a whole lot of time with my 91-year-old father in an assisted living facility during the last three years.  Remarkably, he is healthier and happier today than the day he took up residence there - and both of us attribute his improvement more to his daily interaction with the friends he has made there than to the extra care and assistance he receives.  There is just something special about being around people so regularly.

So when I spotted Jill McCorkle's Life After Life I wondered if she had gotten in right.  Would her portrayal of daily life inside an assisted living facility accurately present all the ups and downs of what residents experience as they navigate their "life after life" period or not?  Well, I can now say that not only does McCorkle get it right, she also creates a number of memorable characters along the way.

Life After Life is set in a Fulton, North Carolina "retirement facility" called Pine Haven Estates.  Most, but not all, of its residents are locals who have known each other since childhood.  One of them, in fact, taught third-grade for so many years that she remembers most of Fulton's citizens as they were when they were eight years old.  Sadie, now 85, has come to believe that, in our hearts, we are all still eight years old, and she conducts herself accordingly. 

Sadie's best friend is Rachel, another retired schoolteacher, who has moved from Massachusetts to spend her final years in North Carolina because of mysterious (and well-guarded) reasons of her own.  Then there is Toby, a "youngish" lesbian and former high school English teacher, whose tendency to see the humor of any situation (and she is not afraid to laugh about it) makes her a treat to have around.  Throw in Stanley, who is outrageously pretending to suffer from dementia so that his son will finally move on with his own life, and the social possibilities are endless.

Jill McCorkle
But McCorkle does not stop there.  She includes characters like Joanna, a hospice worker who is a regular visitor to Pine Haven Estates; C.J., a much tattooed and pierced young lady who provides the facility's beauty care; and Abby, the troubled 12-year-old who lives next door and prefers to spend her free time in Pine Haven Estates rather than with her feuding parents.  All of these "outside" characters have lives and problems of their own that they bring with them to Pine Haven, a reminder to the residents that the world they remember is still spinning right outside their front door. 

Life After Life is fun but it comes with the serious message that "life after life" is what we make of it - and that we best be preparing for it a long time before it begins.  In what I think is a rather jarring ending (which is sure to irritate some readers) one character learns about life the hardest way possible.  This one is definitely worth a look.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

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