Ellen’s Pick of the Week: Afterlife by Julia Alvarez

“After the final no there comes a yes, and on that yes the future world depends.” 

Walter Stevens

Recently retired Antonia Vega had loved her life as an English professor and was looking forward to enjoying some rest and travel until her beloved husband died unexpectedly in a car accident not far from their home in rural Vermont. She soon becomes caught up in the immigration drama of a local Mexican workman and his, unbeknownst to him, pregnant girlfriend who has arrived in town without a place to stay. And, on top of all that, her brilliant and talented oldest sister who has a history of mental health issues, disappears. Should she stay home and help the young pregnant undocumented immigrant or go off with her other sisters to find their eldest sister? None of this was what Antonia had envisioned for her retirement and despite feeling resentful and overwhelmed, she eventually comes to peace with what she needs to do. 

In Julia Alvarez’s first novel for adults in fifteen years, she asks us to consider what we owe to our family and to strangers in need. In the midst of staying-at-home due to Covid-19, I could relate to Antonia’s range of emotions as she considered how different her life was compared to what she had hoped it would be. No matter what we hope, we aren’t always in control of what happens to us, however, we do have the freedom to choose how act in response to life’s vagaries. 

I found this book to be a hopeful tonic to the angry politics and civil discord is today’s society. Themes of undocumented workers, mental illness and family dynamics would make this an excellent book for discussions. 

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