The first months of the 2020s have brought us excellent books by Latino authors. One is Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s memoir, Children of the Land. Another is Afterlife, Julia Alvarez’s first novel for adults in over a decade. It couldn’t be more timely, a moving portrait of a retired English professor and novelist dealing with her husband’s sudden death and the plight of fellow Latinos in her Vermont town.
Antonia Vega is still reeling a year after the death of her husband, Sam, a beloved local doctor. Since then, she has been so adrift that she sometimes pours orange juice into her coffee. Ever the novelist, she often quotes favorite authors, from Wallace Stevens to Shakespeare, to help her cope.
Family and neighborhood events complicate Antonia’s grief. As Alvarez has done so beautifully in previous books, she offers a memorable portrait of sisterhood, as Antonia is one of four sisters who emigrated years ago from the Dominican Republic.
The oldest sister and a former therapist, Izzy has been known to engage in irregular behavior, as when she wrote to Michelle Obama “to offer to design her inauguration gown.” Her latest escapade is more consequential: She gets lost on the drive to Antonia’s 66th birthday party, and the other sisters, including Tilly and fellow therapist Mona, frantically search for her.
In a parallel story, a man named Mario, one of several undocumented Mexicans who work at the dairy farm next to Antonia’s house, asks her to help him bring his girlfriend to Vermont. But he doesn’t tell Antonia the whole truth about their situation. The withheld information leads to complications neither he nor Antonia could have anticipated.
In one moving scene after another, Alvarez dramatizes the sustaining power of stories, whether for immigrants in search of a better life or for widows surviving a spouse’s death. True to its title, Afterlife cannily explores what it means to go on after a loss. As Alvarez writes about Antonia, “The only way not to let the people she loves die forever is to embody what she loved about them.” This is a beautiful book.