Sunday, October 21, 2007
After This, by Alice McDermott
After This is a beautifully written book. It begins and ends in a church, and takes us from the marriage of Mary, a 30-year-old woman, through the birth and growth to adulthood of the four children she has with her husband John. The working-class family lives on Long Island during the middle-to-late decades of the twentieth century, riding out the storms of change in the culture, their lives, and in their church.
Although religion is a big part of their lives, I wouldn't call this a "religious" book. Rather, McDermott shows how the church and the family's beliefs affect - or do not affect - how they live. Mary in particular takes her church's teachings to heart, lighting candles during the two wars she experiences, attending mass regularly, insisting that the children attend Catholic school. We watch, too, as John lies in bed with a slipped disk, thinking of how his life might end, how it might not be as he had imagined, in bed, tended by a priest, but may be as unexpected as falling down dead in the street.
We see segments of each family member's life in vivid color, with light sketches in between phases. Thus we are treated to details of a dinner conversation or a night with a lover and then we may not hear much of that person until he or she is much older. Yet it works. I didn't feel cheated. Many of the moments are deeply moving by themselves, the more so because the moment is not over-labored.
I couldn't help comparing this book to a couple I read recently by Anne Tyler, both of which covered much of the same era in our history. Tyler's books seem, to me, more mocking, more like throwing a veil between the writer and the subjects, while After This is more intimate and touching.
And what is "after this"? From early on I suspected it was "after life". What then? After all that Mary and her family has done and gone through, what then?