Afterlife

  • By Julia Alvarez
  • Algonquin Books
  • 272 pp.
  • Reviewed by Heidi Mastrogiovanni
  • April 10, 2021

A grieving widow wants to be left alone, but a missing sister and a surprise houseguest disrupt her solitude and change her forever.

When a book is touted as one of the most anticipated of the year, expectations are understandably high. When said book is written by a bestselling author (who last published an adult novel nearly 15 years ago), it’s not surprising that those expectations are elevated even more.

But a gold-medal pole vaulter couldn’t clear the highest bar with more grace and assurance than Julia Alvarez does in Afterlife.

Professor Antonia Vega has taught English in a Vermont college for decades. On the evening she’s set to celebrate her retirement, her beloved husband, Sam, suddenly dies. As Antonia copes with this devastating loss, she talks to Sam, feeling his absence with acute agony because she knows he will never answer:

“What she wouldn’t give for his voice coming from the afterlife, assuring her that he’s okay.”

Antonia was born in the Dominican Republic. She came to the United States with her family and ended up teaching Americans about their own language and literary traditions. Words, quotations, and the wisdom of writers and their works run through her mind; they are the ongoing voiceover of her existence. 

Born into a family of four daughters, Antonia needs to go inward to grieve, but her solitary state is interrupted when one of her sisters becomes the cause of grave concern.

This won’t be the only emergency that pulls Antonia away from her healing process: Her cranky neighbor Roger, a man who wants to take back Vermont, nonetheless employs immigrants. One of them, Mario, shows up at Antonia’s house begging her to intercede with Roger to allow his Mexican fiancée into the country.

Alvarez slowly and succinctly unspools Antonia’s thoughts and feelings. Though not in the first-person, the voice of the narration is Antonia’s. She is a tremendously layered protagonist. The reader comes to know her, her relationship with Sam, with her sisters, with her deceased parents, through Alvarez’s lean and lavish prose.

The sisters are to gather in Chicago to celebrate Antonia’s birthday. Somewhere on the way to join them, their troubled sister Izzy disappears. After involving the police and hiring a private investigator, the women disperse and continue the search via different means.

But for Antonia, there’s a twist. When she pops back into her house, she finds there’s someone waiting for her, someone else who needs her help. The pull from all these conflicting situations demands a new type of strength and resolve from Antonia. Will she devote herself to finding her sister, or will she allow her life to take a different, unexpected turn? And when will she find time, through all of this, to help herself?

Through Antonia’s story, Alvarez gives the reader the irresistible opportunity to spend time with big questions. While there may be few or no answers to most of them, Antonia recalls Sam’s core ethic, passed down by his family:

“All he could think of was what his mother would always say when she found herself in a tough situation, drying her hands on her apron, Well, let’s see what love can do.”

In Afterlife, Julia Alvarez shows us what love can do, and it’s a joyous, heartbreaking, unforgettable sight.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]

Heidi Mastrogiovanni is the author of the comedic novel Lala Pettibone’s Act Two (finalist for the Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Awards) and the sequel, Lala Pettibone: Standing Room Only (Amberjack Publishing). With James Napoli (The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm), she is co-host of the “Movies Not Movies” comedy podcast. A dedicated animal-welfare advocate, Heidi lives in Los Angeles with her musician husband and their rescued senior dogs.

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