The first adult novel in almost fifteen years by the internationally bestselling author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.
Antonia Vega, the immigrant writer at the center of Afterlife, has had the rug pulled out from under her. She has just retired from the college where she taught English when her beloved husband, Sam, suddenly dies. And then more jolts: her bighearted but unstable sister disappears, and Antonia returns home one evening to find a pregnant, undocumented teenager on her doorstep.
The first adult novel in almost fifteen years by the internationally bestselling author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.
Antonia Vega, the immigrant writer at the center of Afterlife, has had the rug pulled out from under her. She has just retired from the college where she taught English when her beloved husband, Sam, suddenly dies. And then more jolts: her bighearted but unstable sister disappears, and Antonia returns home one evening to find a pregnant, undocumented teenager on her doorstep. Antonia has always sought direction in the literature she loves—lines from her favorite authors play in her head like a soundtrack—but now she finds that the world demands more of her than words.
Afterlife is a compact, nimble, and sharply droll novel. Set in this political moment of tribalism and distrust, it asks: What do we owe those in crisis in our families, including—maybe especially—members of our human family? How do we live in a broken world without losing faith in one another or ourselves? And how do we stay true to those glorious souls we have lost?
- April 2021
- 288 Pages
A Best Book of 2020: Kirkus Reviews * BookPage * Washington Independent Review of Books * Chicago Public Library
A Kirkus Reviews Best 2020 Fiction To Get Your Book Club Talking
A Latinidad Best Latinx Book of 2020
An AudioFile Magazine Best Audiobook of 2020
“A gorgeously intimate portrait of an immigrant writer and recent widow carving out hope in the face of personal and political grief.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“A sweeping tour de force . . . one of the most significant Latina writers of her time.” —Entertainment Weekly
“The bestselling Dominican American author of In the Time of the Butterflies tackles weighty issues with a nice touch of humor in her new novel (which is on the shorter side, for anyone not in the mood for a big read).” —AARP.org
“A stunning work of art that reminds readers Alvarez is, and always has been, in a class of her own.” —Elizabeth Acevedo, National Book Award-winning author of the New York Times bestseller The Poet X
“First, let’s acknowledge the fact that a new novel by Julia Alvarez . . .is major news. Second, and more importantly, her new adult novel is really good! —BuzzFeed, “24 New Books We Couldn’t Put Down”
“A new short, lyric novel from the author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies? Yes, please, and thank you.” —The Washington Post
“Alvarez crafts a moving portrait of the lengths people will go to help one another in moments of uncertainty.” —Time
“[A] remarkable and nuanced novel exploring immigration, humanity and compassion in a bitter and fractured world.” —Ms. Magazine
“Alvarez’s prose is magnetic as she delves into the intricacies of sisterhood, immigration, and grief, once again proving her mastery as a storyteller. This stirring novel reminds readers that actions (big and small) have a lasting impact—so they should always act with love.” —Library Journal, starred review
“A funny, moving novel of loss and love . . . Alvarez writes with knowing warmth about how well sisters know how to push on each other’s bruises and how powerfully they can lift each other up. In this bighearted novel, family bonds heal a woman’s grief.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“A charming novel of immigration, loss, and love.” —Booklist, starred review
1. Antonia and her sisters are close and clearly love one another; at the same time, like many siblings, they argue, put each other in boxes, and are not always supportive. How are the sisters similar and how are they different? Which parts of their relationships felt familiar to you, if you have siblings?
2. Antonia notes that in many ways, her husband, Sam, remains alive in her head: she often wonders what he would say or do, and she lets that guide her own actions. Do you think Antonia would have made different decisions about Mario, Estela, and Izzy if Sam had still been alive?
3. How do you feel about the actions Antonia ultimately takes to help Mario and Estela? Does their story change your thinking about immigration in America? If so, how?
4. Discuss the sisters’ plan to get help for Izzy and the ways that it backfired. What do you think about how they handled the situation?
5. The sisters all have distinct roles in the sisterhood, and Antonia also had a defined role in her relationship with Sam (bad cop to his good cop). How did Sam’s death change the way Antonia viewed herself? How do you think Izzy’s death will alter the roles of the sisterhood? What is your role in your own family? Is it accurate, fair?
6. Antonia is often viewed as the selfish sister. Despite this, she struggles with recognizing and asking for what she needs. In Afterlife, she is frequently called on to assist others. How do you think this helps her better understand her own needs?
7. Antonia frequently recites lines from her favorite authors and poets, and their words provide comfort and wisdom. Do you think these literary references are always helpful? Do you have poems, songs, books, or other stories that you return to when you need comfort? How have the arts helped you in a dark time?
8. When we have identified an injustice or problem in our world or in our family, do we have a responsibility to address it? Antonia remembers a Tolstoy story with three questions: What is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do? How do you decide the balance between taking care of yourself and taking care of others?
9. Antonia notes that ethnicity and race are often used by the sisters as their personal loophole. How do ethnicity, race, or culture qualify how we care and commit to community, self, family?
10. Why do you think this book is set in Vermont, a state with a relatively small Latino population? How might the demographics of her home influence Antonia’s choices?
11. Does the Japanese repair technique described in the epilogue feel relevant to your own life?
12. Who in this book has an afterlife?
Today, the magnet on her fridge proves prophetic:
Even creatures of habit can sometimes be forgetful.
You said it, Antonia agrees. She has just poured orange juice into the coffee in the mug she brought back from one of the fancier hotels. Must have been a special occasion for Sam to have chosen to stay there and for her to have allowed the expense.
You’d think you were born with money in your family, she liked to tease him.
I never had it to begin with, so I’m not afraid to spend it, Sam responded. He was always quick with a comeback. Used to get him in trouble with his dad growing up. Being fresh, it was called back then. Oh, the stories he told her.
Sam spoiled her, or tried to, and got scolded as his thanks—but it was the kind of scolding that must’ve made him suspect she liked being made something of.
There’ll be no more of that now.
She is keeping to her routines, walking a narrow path through the loss—not allowing her thoughts to stray. Occasionally, she takes sips of sorrow, afraid the big wave might wash her away. Widows leaping into a husband’s pyre, mothers jumping into a child’s grave. She has taught those stories.
Today, like every other day, you wake up empty and frightened, she quotes to herself as she looks at her reflection in the mirror in the morning. Her beloved Rumi no longer able to plug the holes.
Late afternoons as the day wanes, in bed in the middle of the night, in spite of her efforts, she finds herself at the outer edge where, in the old maps, the world drops off, and beyond is terra incognita, sea serpents, the Leviathan—Here There Be Dragons.
Countless times a day, and night, she pulls herself back from this edge. If not for herself, then for the others: her three sisters, a few old aunties, nieces and nephews less so. Her circle used to be wider. But she has had to pull in, contain the damage, keep breathing.
As she often tells her sister Izzy, always in crisis, arriving for visits with shopping bags full of gifts and a broken heart: the best thing you can give the people who love you is to take care of yourself so you don’t become a burden on them. No wonder Izzy’s ringtone for Antonia is church bells.
Actually, all the sisters have followed Izzy’s lead and assigned that ringtone to Antonia. The secret got out. The secret always gets out in the sisterhood. Our Lady of Pronouncements, Mona said by way of explanation. Good old Mo-mo, no hairs on her tongue—one of their mother’s Dominican sayings. Tilly was kinder. Sort of. It’s because you started going to Sam’s church. It’s how Tilly used to describe their denomination, to avoid using the word Christian. Now she avoids Sam’s name. Your church. As if Antonia would forget that Sam is gone unless someone reminds her.
They’re just jealous, was Sam’s theory about the ringtone profiling. All your years of teaching. You’ve picked up a lot of wisdom. A head full of chestnuts.
Full of B.S. That’s what the sisterhood would say.
Who now to champion her way of being in the world?
She empties out the ruined coffee and starts over.
The little phone she is carrying in her pocket begins ringing. She hasn’t set special ringtones for anyone, except Mona, who insisted on dogs barking. Not just any dogs, but Mona’s five rescues, which she set up on Antonia’s phone.
Today it’s Tilly calling. A few days ago, Mona. Izzy weaves in and out. The sisterhood checking in on her. You take her this morning. I’ll call her this weekend. The frequency has dropped off the last few months, but it has been sweet.
How are you? they ask. How are you doing?
Come visit, they all say. Knowing she won’t take them up on it. She is the sister who hates traveling even during the best of times.
It’s beautiful here, Tilly brags. Why do you think it’s called the Heartland? They have an ongoing rivalry. Vermont or Illinois. Who gets spring first, who has the worst snowfalls?
As she chats with her sister, Antonia hears plates clattering in the background. Tilly cannot abide being still. What are you doing? Antonia confronts her sister.
What do you mean what am I doing?
How easily they slip into bickering. It’s almost a relief when Tilly brings up Izzy. I’m worried, Tilly says. Izzy has been increasingly erratic. She is selling her house just outside of Boston, or not—they can’t be sure. She is sleeping in friends’ spare rooms or on their couches while she remodels her house.
But you’re selling it, aren’t you? the sisters try to reason with her.
It’ll bring in more money if it’s perfect.
Perfection takes time, not to mention money, which Izzy is always saying she doesn’t have. Didn’t she stop seeing her shrink because she said it was too much money? But you have insurance, don’t you? The sisters again, the Dominican Greek chorus they become when some sister, usually Izzy, is headed for a downfall.
I don’t want some insurance company knowing I’m going to a shrink. A shrink seeing a shrink! It would ruin my professional standing.
That bridge was burned a while back, according to Mona. Izzy is no longer at the mental health practice she helped start. Even master sleuth Mona isn’t sure what all came down.
And she’s also stopped the meds she was on, Tilly adds. Mona says you can’t do that with those kind of meds. Tilly sighs, eerily still for a change, and then says, They had a huge fight. Those two, I tell you.
Antonia imagines Tilly shaking her head. It is odd that Izzy and Mona, the two therapists in the family, can’t apply their professional skills to getting along. You said it, Antonia agrees, so as not to append something negative and quotable that will get back to the others, bring on more bickering.
Anyhow, sister, screw them. How are you doing?
I’m okay. Antonia’s mantra of the last year. Somewhere she read that okay and Coca-Cola are the two most universally understood words. It depresses her to think the ties that bind are so flimsy. Even silence would be better.
But silence is all she gets when she addresses Sam these days. What she wouldn’t give for his voice coming from the afterlife, assuring her that he’s okay.
Living the Afterlife
I’ve always liked to be prepared: I like to know what to expect, what to pack, who will be at my surprise party. Even as a kid, I wanted a plan, and being a middle sister suited me just fine. Someone was always ahead of me, reporting back on what was to come. When I learned from my older sister about boys and sex, she cautioned that I couldn’t think about it because if I did and died right then, I’d go straight to hell. That was terrible news. But I had to think about it, have a plan going forward. My American friend Elizabeth offered to help. We spent an afternoon kissing and petting in a part of the garden Papi had planted, which he called El Paraiso—just practicing, you know.
When the Girl Scouts came to the Dominican Republic, my older sister joined. A few months later, an American mom started a Brownie troop for us younger girls. At our first gathering, the mom explained we were going on a treasure hunt. We were to work together as a team: she’d give us the first clue to puzzle out, which would lead us to the next and the next clue, until finally we’d unearth a buried box full of candies. But I wanted to know where the treasure was beforehand. So I wandered off, searching for any recent disturbance of the ground. Sure enough, I found the mound, dug up the box, and hollered, “Candy!”
“Julia is not ready to be a Brownie,” the leader told Mami.
I grew up in an oral storytelling culture, with a repertoire of family stories repeated over and over. I already knew the plots and characters, the twists and turns, but that didn’t diminish the satisfying pleasures of encountering them again, old friends. My favorite storybook was The Arabian Nights. This smart girl Scheherazade had a plan: she bombarded the sultan with story after story for 1001 nights, stories I got to know by heart: “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “Aladdin and His Magic Lantern,” “Sinbad, the Sailor.” Scheherazade ended up saving her life and the lives of all the women in her kingdom. This is what came from good planning.
In 1960, we had to leave the country in a hurry to escape the dictator’s dreaded secret police. All our plans went out the window. We landed in Nueva York, a huge metropolis full of strangers speaking a language I couldn’t decode. What were they like, these Americans? Who did they love? How did they go about their lives? I became a reader, not to find myself in books—in fact, there were no “multicultural books.” I read to find out about them, their daily lives, their idioms, their jokes, their families, friends, enemies. It was profoundly transforming to discover that these characters who were supposed to be so different from us were so much like me.
I started writing my own stories in large part to understand what was happening to my family and me in this brave new world. In my first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, I was able to imaginatively resolve the issues that arose in an all-girl immigrant family. In the Time of the Butterflies helped me to learn about and reflect upon my parents’ generation, the wages of the dictatorship they had left behind. Writing was my GPS in the labyrinth of “real life.” Otherwise, I would’ve ended up devoured by the minotaurs waiting around every dark corner. As I told a reader once during a Q and A, my writing process was “staying one sentence ahead of the furies.”
You might think, then, that I’m the kind of writer who has a book all planned out ahead of time. I am a disciplined writer with a writing schedule I try not to veer from, and I do work best with structure. Like Flannery O’Connor, I’m a believer in the daily habit of writing. I’m not always productive or inspired, but the muse knows I’m home from nine to three. I wouldn’t want to miss her when she deigns to come. That said, I rarely know where I’m going or even what I’m thinking until I write it out. To alleviate the stress, I do always have a safety plan as a lucky charm: this will be the ending; this character will end up doing this and that. (I hear John Irving always knows the last line of his novels before he starts. Jeez, some writers have all the luck!) Once I have a plan, I can let go and lose myself in the mystery.
This all worked fine for my young and middle-aged writing life. But then the safeties came tumbling down. Mortality, which shouldn’t have come as a surprise, surprised me. I started losing the people I love. One of the downsides of having a large extended familia is that when the time comes, you lose not just a nuclear handful but a whole flank of significant others: tías, tíos, madrinas, padrinos, abuelos. The losses kept coming closer: my parents, my beloved in-laws, my teachers, dear older friends left and right. Beyond these personal endings was a growing sense that we are living in elegiac times with the destruction of so many ecosystems, the extinction of many species, the poisoning of the air we breathe, the water we drink.
When I lost my older sister to suicide, I was lost. Following her was what I’d always done. I no longer had my scout, always a few steps ahead, making the mistakes I would learn from, preparing the ground for my arrival, and preparing me for what was coming. I tried writing my way out of grief, but I couldn’t summon the fierce attention and affection a book requires in order to get written. My old tricks didn’t work. The discipline, the staying ahead of the furies. I couldn’t run that fast anymore. I couldn’t whip out a chapter, channeling Anne Tyler. I realized at some point that I, too, had died—or at least my old selves and the younger writer who had written about them.
But I couldn’t give up. None of us can afford to stop at despair. We owe the generations coming our deepest, truest activism: doing the work we love to do. And so, rather than abandon all hope and stay stuck in the underworld, I began to reflect on loss and last things. After the final no, there comes a yes, Wallace Stevens wrote. But where will the yes after the final no come from now?
It may come in such seemingly insignificant, often irritatingly inconvenient ways that we might miss it or dismiss it, were a story not there to force us to pay attention. It might come in the guise of an undocumented pregnant Mexican girl or a sheriff who really does have a heart of gold under his gold star or an exasperating manic sister with a noble heart. It will come at those moments when we act out of the larger versions of ourselves and edge a little closer to a more beloved community.
Afterlife is, then, my first novel written as an elder. I’ve been preparing myself, you know, befriending a world that is closing in on being the world without me. I call it “living the afterlife.” If Scheherazade—a plucky woman with a crafty plan, who kept herself alive in the sultan’s court—was my first muse and model as a young storyteller, who will be my muse for this time in my own and in our planetary life? I write to find out.