Alice McDermott, whose previous novels include the National Book Award-winning CHARMING BILLY and the quietly luminous AT WEDDINGS AND WAKES, has become known for finding the exceptional, the extraordinary, in the daily events that make up family life. A superior literary craftsperson, McDermott wastes nothing in her spare, evocative prose, instead wresting emotion out of human interactions and perfectly rendered images. AFTER THIS, McDermott's domestic epic outlining several decades in the lives of a suburban Irish Catholic family, will continue to cement her reputation as one of the most accomplished American authors writing today.
AFTER THIS begins shortly after the close of World War II, as 30-year-old Mary Rose endures a lonely life, her days centered on her work in the secretarial pool and the care she takes for her father and brother. Every noon hour, Mary heads to the nearby Catholic church where, now that the war is over, she prays for her own life: "She did not want a life drained of kindness and compassion and humor.... She had prayed for if not a better life than this daily, lonely one, a better way to be content with it." Before we're 10 pages into the book, Mary meets handsome John Keane at the lunch counter, and the rest of the novel centers on the ways this utterly average couple finds contentment in the dramas that play out over the several decades of their married life.
Mary and John have four children, each of whom takes center stage for at least a moment in the novel's shifting third-person narration. The result is a portrait of a family's change over time, an impressionistic portrait at best, since although the overall thrust of the narrative is chronological, McDermott slyly shows us glimpses of the future --- or the past --- through asides to the reader that hint at her characters' fates.
Events from the past (John's chance meeting during WWII with a doomed young man named Jacob) parallel those in the present (John and Mary's own frail, sensitive son, named for that dead soldier, heads off to fight his own battles in Vietnam). Likewise, events in the present (the family huddled together in the basement to wait out a hurricane) gain importance when placed in the context of the past (children huddled in corners of bomb shelters during the Blitz in London). Advice given, offhand comments, even the music of an unseen pianist all echo through the pages of the novel and weave together events in a way that conveys the profoundness and mysteries inherent in every family's story.
John and Mary Keane's youngest daughter, Clare, is born in the wake of that hurricane and will eventually shape the family's story in her own way. Their neighbor, who ends up delivering the baby, thinks to himself, "there were children growing in nearly every house in this neighborhood, in every borough and every town. Thousands more were being born today, being conceived --- women with their knees raised all over the world. Mrs. Keane herself already had three. If one of these, if a hundred of them, a thousand, came too soon or failed to thrive or were born incomplete somehow, born blue or ill made or with reason's taut string already snapped, it was of little matter in the long history of God's bustling."
In AFTER THIS, McDermott challenges this supposition, showing --- in minute details, in moments of real tragedy and quiet grace --- how genuinely extraordinary are the lives of even the most ordinary families.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 22, 2010