AFTER THIS by Alice McDermott
Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book-'Em
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(January 31, 2008) After
This, another chronicle by the well known and respected Alice
McDermott, visits the lives of John and Mary Rose Keane and their four
offspring during the years spanning post World War II through the Vietnam
War. Readers familiar with McDermott's novels (That Night, Charming
Billy, Child of My Heart) will already know that the Keanes are
an Irish-Catholic, middle class family living on Long Island. They will
anticipate the ordinary day-to-day life of a visit to the beach, an evening
storm with loss of electricity, Sunday Mass, an event at the World's Fair,
mingled with pain and sorrow and losses. This story is pointedly book-ended
by war, grounded in faith and punctuated by moments of delicious nostalgia.
Some of the writing is lovely: "silvered shards of mad sunlight in her
eyes." This is the story of a family in a community; it is, as well, the
story of their individual lives. It is a story of "the times," the post
world war shiny optimism and the '60's rebellion and grief.
With only one dissent, our members enjoyed After This.
"I really liked it. It's not an earth shattering book to read but I really
cared about these people." Another member commented, "Her writing breathes
you into the pages immediately. Her scene becomes more real than the one
that you are sitting in." Our lone dissenter, who felt that the novel
"was boring," later expressed surprise at the extent of engaged discussion
it generated and enthusiastically joined in.
The group was interested in the passivity and repressed emotion of the
older Keanes. There was much discussion of the role of the Catholic Church
and its teachings of never questioning, of acceptance. There is an inexorable
"march of time" (a frequently repeated phrase within the text of the novel)
on these pages which seemed beyond the power of the characters to control
or influence. Are they afraid to tamper with fate or, more likely, "God's
will" or are they at peace with events?
The concept of "time" is actually incorporated within the framework of
narrative style the author employs. A third person narrator in the present
reveals the past in multiple flashbacks and offers glimpes of future events
as well. We discussed this style and the role "time" plays concluding
that for the Keanes it meant "just getting through life." And many members
protested this passive philosophy. Book-'Em drew on its own members who
included the "Irish-Catholic," "Long Island Jew," and "non-Irish Catholic"
in the discussion, each reflecting on their stereotype and personal experiences.
The title itself is ripe with meaning. Quite literally one wonders "and
then what happens to them?" We also thought about the differences between
the older and younger generation of Keanes in their friendships, decisions,
lifestyles, outlooks and views. "After this" what will the next generation
believe, accept, and practice?
The role of faith in one's life, the shortcomings of the Church encoded
on these pages, spinsterhood (personified in the character of Pauline),
the draft, the impact of major events on generational lives, such as the
Vietnam War then (and 9-11 for us now), were all touched upon. No wonder
our "dissenter" looked at After This with new eyes! And
she's planning to read another McDermott novel in the future. I suspect
that would be recommendation enough for any book group.
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