Monday, November 23, 2020

Afterlife - Julia Alvarez

This is my first experience with something from Julia Alvarez, but I know that she is a deeply respected author who has been well rewarded in the past. Her In the Time of the Butterflies, for instance, is said to have over one million copies in print now, and was selected by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of that group’s Big Read program. Also, in 2013, President Obama presented Alvarez with the National Medal of Arts because of her “extraordinary storytelling.” Granted, Alvarez is known primarily as an author of coming-of-age novels for younger readers, and this is her first novel for adults in some fourteen years, so the fact that I’ve been pretty much oblivious to her work up to now is not really all that much of a stretch. 

Sadly enough, even though I came to my first Julia Alvarez story so late into her career, I have to say that Afterlife did not really worked for me. 

Afterlife is the story of a “sisterhood” of four women somewhere in their sixth or seventh decades who immigrated as children to the United States from the Dominican Republic. The novel’s central character is Antonia Vega, who has just retired from the college at which she’s taught English (of all things) for four decades. Just when she’s having to make that adjustment, Antonia’s husband dies very suddenly, and leaves her all alone. Now she feels broken. 

Soon, there will be plenty to help take Antonia’s mind off of her retirement and the loss of her husband. First, despite herself, she decides to help the young Mexican working illegally on the farm next door after he tells her that he is desperate to get his fiancĂ© away from the coyotes who helped sneak her into the United States. Then, Izzy, the oldest of the four sisters, disappears while traveling to an out-of-state birthday party. After the sisterhood meets to decide how best to find their lost member, Antonia comes home only to find an obviously pregnant Mexican teen waiting for her. And that marks the official end of any semblance of the solitary life of a recently widowed retiree for which Antonia feared she was destined. 

The premise of Afterlife is interesting enough, but because most of the characters remained stick-figures to me right to the end of the novel, I never felt moved by the plight of any of them. None of them, including Antonia herself, ever felt real enough to me to make me forget that I was reading just another version of a story I’ve already heard too many times for it ever to seem fresh again. 

I do rather like Antonia’s idea about an afterlife, however, when she reaches the conclusion “that the only way not to let the people she loves die forever is to embody what she loved about them. Otherwise the world is depleted.” I was struck, too, by Antonia’s realization that she “has to live the only mortal life she is sure to have,” and how she uses an old Yiddish saying, “If I try to be like you, who will be like me?” to explain herself to herself. 

Bottom Line: I never managed to get myself in sync with Afterlife, and I wonder if I would have even finished it if it had been much longer than it’s just under 300 pages. Perhaps it is because the novel is so politically correct and predictable that I found myself growing bored with it about half way through. 

Julia Alvarez


  1. This doesn't sound like the right book for me. I probably wouldn't even end up finishing it.

    1. Only its relative brevity kept me coming back to it. Based on the author's history and reputation I was sure my opinion had to change soon...and suddenly I ran out of pages before that happened.

  2. What a shame that a promising book ended by not working for you at all. That's always such a disappointment. But I applaud you for your adventurous choice of books, Sam. I'm way too safe most of the time and am hoping to do something about that in 2021.

    1. Definitely a disappointment, Cath. First 2-star book I've had in a while, in fact.

      I always look forward to hearing about what you're reading because British books are often delayed arriving here for a year...sometimes more. Plus, I expect you have access to better translations from Europe than we get...don't think you're playing it too safe at all.