Antonia Vega, a retired English professor, still hasn’t adjusted to widowhood a year after her husband, Sam’s, death. She’s slowly withdrawn from her sisters, her friends, and her volunteer activities. Unexpectedly, though, she is catapulted out of complacency when Mario, an undocumented laborer from the farm next door asks for her help getting his girlfriend, Estela, away from coyotes in Colorado and to the relative safety of their rural Vermont community. Meanwhile, her erratic older sister, Izzy, disappears, and she and her two younger sisters bolt into action to find her and address Izzy’s likely mental illness.
With lines from literature giving her comfort, Antonia struggles with grief over her husband’s death. She not only must learn to live with his absence but also decide how best to honor his memory and keep him alive in her version of his afterlife. Cognizant of this emotional work, she questions how much responsibility she has towards Izzy, her other sisters, and Mario and Estela.
Afterlife by Julia Alvarez, a novel she calls her first book written as an “elder,” touched me through its beauty, lyricism, and wisdom. In the compact story, Alvarez addresses significant themes around language, community, family, grief, power, and immigration. I found myself noting several passages for their sublimity or loveliness. Despite the serious subject matter, the book also has moments of humor, especially everything to do with Antonia’s younger sister Tilly.
The novel’s characters, writing style, and storyline all satisfied me; my only complaint was that I wanted more. Although a few flashbacks reveal Vega family intricacies, the book primarily takes place in the present tense. Because I know it’s important to some readers, I’ll mention that Alvarez doesn’t use quotation marks around the dialogue, but I must confess I didn’t even realize this until I saw it mentioned elsewhere.
I envy those who haven’t read Afterlife yet. I highly recommend it for fans of literary fiction.
Afterlife goes on sale tomorrow, April 7. Look for it at your favorite bookstore!
Thank you to Algonquin Books and Edelweiss for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.