Julia Alvarez won a following with her 1991 debut “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents,” the tale of four sisters from the Dominican Republic adjusting to life after immigration to the United States.
Other sets of sisters appeared in her subsequent books, and now a new clan of immigrant sixty-somethings is the cast of “Afterlife,” her first adult novel in almost 15 years.
The Vega girls have been scattered geographically: Izzy in Massachusetts, Antonia in Vermont, Tilly in Illinois and Mona in North Carolina. Long-distance sisterhood has its own set of rules, mordantly laid out for us by Antonia, the novel’s protagonist, a recently retired college professor and author. Rules include: Always act pleased to see them. Honor thy sister’s turf. Never remain dry-eyed when a sister is crying. And when a sister talks to another sister about the misbehavior of a third sister, she is referred to as “your sister” — that is, certainly not mine.
Yet all this drollery (in a typical aside, a student confuses Scylla and Charybdis with Thelma and Louise) surrounds a core of searing loss and imminent danger.
Not long before her 66th birthday, Antonia’s beloved husband, Sam, died of a heart attack. She has been spiraling through her sorrow mostly in solitude: “The landscape of grief is not very inviting. Visitors don’t want to linger. The best thing you can do for the people who love you is to usher them quickly through it.”
But whether she likes it or not, she is about to be wrenched out of her grief vortex. First, there’s Mario, the young illegal Mexican who works on her neighbor’s farm and helps her around the house. He has prevailed upon her to help retrieve his girlfriend from the coyotes who brought her across the border and are demanding money to send her any farther. Then, when the teenage Estela shows up in Vermont very, very pregnant with another man’s child, Mario dumps her on Antonia’s doorstep.
Torn between wanting to help, as her late doctor husband would have done, and wanting to flee, which is more her style, Antonia gets Estela settled with prenatal care and heads to a sisters’ reunion in Chicago for her birthday weekend. But Izzy, who has struggled for years with untreated manic depression, never arrives. A grand scheme involving an artist colony in western Massachusetts and, later, some llamas, pulled her off course. Having ditched her phone somewhere, she is completely incommunicado.
As the sisters zoom into action to track Izzy down, as Estela gives birth, as a crackdown by la migra looms, Antonia has many reasons to understand why and how you go on living after life as you knew it disappears. She has always relied on the consolations of literature — the book is full of quotes from Rilke, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson and others — but now she will learn the surprising blessing of the needs of others.
Welcome back, Ms. Alvarez!
University of Baltimore professor Marion Winik is the author of “The Big Book of the Dead” and host of the Weekly Reader podcast. Visit her at marionwinik.com.
By: Julia Alvarez.
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 272 pages, $25.95.