Cover Image: Afterlife


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Member Reviews

I work at a University Library and during this time of remote learning, remote working and trying to stay safe in a pandemic, as a way to connect the university launched a “Great Big Read” program.  Two books were chosen to start, and this one, Afterlife by Julia Alverez was one of those books.

At the library we bought unlimited access to the eBook (the library is not open right for print) for our community. We came together to read this moving and beautiful book.  

I’m late in posting a review, but we had discussion groups and the author herself joined in one of our zoom discussions to talk about writing, being an immigrant, and of course this book, Afterlife.
Highly recommend reading this book.
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Retirement, sibling conflict, mental illness (or maybe just eccentricity) and undocumented immigrants- there is a lot going on in this book. The characters never really grabbed me, though. Overall an ok ready, but not one that makes me want to read more by Julia Alvarez.
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Character and theme driven plot centered on t”the sisterhood” of  four sisters whose family immigrated from the Dominican Republic when they were children.  They have scattered to various states and are now adults, either in or approaching retirement, but they have maintained very close bonds. Narrator Antonia Vega is a recently  retired English professor  in Vermont and she is navigating the grief process since her husband Sam's death.  He was a respected doctor who volunteered his time and energy to make the world a better place, and this causes Antonia to constantly ask herself how Sam would react. Antonia's Vermont town has quite a few undocumented immigrants, some who are essential to the area's diary industry and others who have started small businesses, like the cafe. Two of the undocumented immigrants, Mario and and his fiance Estella, become the focal point of this storyline, and Antonia's ethical dilemna.  Meanwhile, Tilly, the  2nd youngest  and most opinionated, unfiltered of the four sisters,  wants everyone to gather at her home in Illinois to celebrate Antonia's birthday.  Antonia has reservations about leaving Vermont, but does.  Meanwhile, the oldest sister Izzy, is making her way across Massachusetts to Illinois, stopping in western Massachusetts to buy a property to highlight and house Latin art. Her sisters recognize the symptoms--she is in mental crisis, and seems to be on  the hyper side of bipolar.  That leaves Mona in North Carolina, the youngest, and she is hemming and hawing that between her family and career,  she is too busy to come.  However, when Izzy goes missing and no one can reach her, Mona joins her sisters in organizing the intervention. The discussions between the sisters as they negotiate treatment for Izzy, and Izzy's negative reception to the plan, is classic “sister speak”.   Does one allow their sister to self destruct? How far does one's moral responsibility go? Like i said , this is character and theme driven, but the plot couldn't be any more timely.
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A lovely story of grief.  The compassion that the main characters show each other is so soothing even in its urgency.  If a book can be said to listen to stories as much as it can be said to tell then, this is such a book!
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Once again, Julia Alvarez has written a compelling, timely novel. In Afterlife, the reader meets Antonia Vega as she struggles with her recent widowhood,, but soon we meet her three sisters:  Izzy, Tilley, & Mona. As well as her neighbors in her sub-rural community: her  cantankerous neighbor who employs undocumented immigrants on his farm, Beth,  the nurse who worked with Antonio’s husband, Sam, at the hospital, Lulu the owner of the Mexican restaurant in town, & a friendly sheriff. When Izzy, fails to arrive in Chicago to celebrate Antonia’s birthday, the sisters must find her! Masterfully written with a depth of character development, Ms. Alvarez’s reader’s know well, Afterlife is destined to be read more than once.
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Antonia Vega has just retired from her job as a college professor, and her husband has suddenly and unexpectedly died. Her beloved sister, an integral part of the four who form a united and tempestuous sisterhood, is missing. An undocumented immigrant has nowhere to go, and needs Antonia's help. Antonia is used to relying on her steady husband and the quotes from literature she's taught her entire life, but now she is finding she may need to learn some other ways to cope.

A novel full of all the complexities life brings to us---the complex people, the complex situations. It offers no easy answers, no quick solutions, and yet is filled with deep wisdom.
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Thank you to Algonquin Books for access to a DRC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Julia Alvarez is a beautiful writer, so there is something inherently enjoyable in reading her books. But this story just didn't work for me. There was A LOT going on in this relatively slim novel: the loss of a partner, mental illness, illegal immigration. And it's all interesting and important and worth exploring, but it ended up feeling disjointed to me and I never could get a good grip on what the book was actually about. It felt like it was about all of those things and none of those things at the same time. I don't know anything about Alvarez' personal life, but as I was reading this book, I wondered if she had recently lost her partner or another loved one. This book read like the author was working through something, writing through her grief. Which is fine, of course; there's tremendous value in healing through writing. But I felt the author's presence very strongly, and that overshadowed her characters and their stories and it was difficult for me to connect with, and care about, those characters, their lives, and their journeys over the course of this book.
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After nearly 15 years, bestselling and critically acclaimed author Julia Alvarez has made a triumphant return to the world of adult literature with AFTERLIFE. Best known for such works as HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS and IN THE TIME OF THE BUTTERFLIES, Alvarez is renowned for breaking boundaries and straddling borders between Latin American and American literature, as well as portraying the struggles of cultural hybridization and the integration of immigrants into American life. In AFTERLIFE, she introduces her readers to Antonia Vega, a Dominican writer who, after creating a warm and fulfilling life in America for decades, has just had the rug pulled out from under her.

At the start of the book, Antonia is awaiting her husband Sam’s arrival at a restaurant where the two will celebrate her recent retirement from teaching English at a local college in their home state of Vermont. In broken, lyrical language, Antonia relates the terror of the moment when she realizes that he will never make it, as he has suffered an aortic aneurysm en route to the restaurant. Alone, lacking the routine of her former career as a professor and novelist, and intellectually restless, she must create an “after life” for herself even as she longs for Sam in his own afterlife.

Although Antonia feels like she is ready to finally put herself first and carve out a better fitting identity, she is soon faced with an existential crisis. Mario, an undocumented Mexican worker at her neighbor’s dairy farm, has just revealed that his girlfriend, Estela, is no longer in Mexico, but has arrived in Colorado with the help of coyotes, and he needs help getting her on a bus to Vermont. To make matters worse, he has not told his boss, Roger, that they are expecting a visitor, and he wonders if Antonia, with her guest bedroom and comfortable home, would be willing to help. Antonia is aware that Sam would know exactly what to do and would likely offer up as much help as they could give, but she worries that she is not equipped to make choices like these alone. With her moral decision echoing the larger national conversation of how citizens can help or betray their undocumented neighbors, she ruminates on what it means to be a good neighbor and act with love.

Through flashbacks and snippets of Sam’s voice in her head, we learn that while they were liberal and active in their beliefs, he had a certain fervor for activism that she often found difficult to share. As an immigrant herself, Antonia felt more comfortable not drawing attention to her voice, worried that she would become a spokesperson for her fellow Latin Americans, especially the newly arrived undocumented ones who work for the farmers in her rural town. Now, with Sam not around to bolster her and encourage her to act with love and fight for what is right, she struggles to find an identity or rhythm that suits her. Should she bring up the plight of undocumented workers at dinner parties with her educated peers? Should she offer to translate for local businesses with Spanish-speaking clientele? Is it really so wrong to put on her own “oxygen mask” first and recover from her painful loss before beginning to assist others? As much as Antonia wants to help, she feels burdened by the chore of being the middleman, especially when it comes to Mario.

As she struggles with her decision to help Mario explain his new situation to his boss, Antonia prepares to travel to Chicago to celebrate her 66th birthday with her sister, Tilly. As one of four sisters, she finds comfort in the “sisterhood,” as they call themselves, and their alternating bouts of contention and love. Their sibling drama and moments of hilarity add a certain levity to the plight of Mario and Estela, but they, too, are dealing with a crisis: their eldest sister, Izzy, a retired therapist who is now known for her erratic and passionate outbursts, has been acting even stranger than usual, and the sisterhood feels that it is time to check in on their beloved but kooky sibling. They are relieved when she decides to join them all in Chicago, but when she does not arrive on time and stops answering her phone, they fear she is far more unstable than they realized. With the fourth sister, Mona, accompanying them, the women hit the pavement to try to find and help Izzy.

Antonia returns home to find that Mario’s girlfriend has arrived --- and she has been hiding a huge surprise. With their relationship tense, Estela has been hiding out in Antonia’s garage, and now it is up to Antonia to make sure she gets the care she needs while still attempting to massage and fix the young girl’s relationship with an increasingly stubborn Mario. Weaving back and forth between finding her sister and helping Mario, Antonia finds herself caught between loyalty and love, being a good citizen and being a decent person. With both situations growing worse and more precarious by the moment, she must grapple with questions of identity, privilege and family dynamics.

Antonia is an interesting choice for a protagonist, as she is not wholly sympathetic or wholly good. She wrestles with moral questions, has a tendency to quote classic literature in a way that distances her from important conversations, and is very much still grieving the loss of her husband, which often makes her feel isolated from her supporting characters. The question of privilege is an especially intriguing one in AFTERLIFE, as Antonia knows she has a good life --- she married a doctor, taught English to native speakers, and enjoys a comfortable life in rural Vermont --- but still she must deal with neighbors calling her Mexican and grouping her in with their undocumented farmhands and waitresses to whom they pay meager wages and allow even fewer rights. Her aversion to becoming an activist or spokesperson feels natural in Alvarez’s hands; she is by no means a bad person, just a real one.

The highlight of the novel is the sisterhood’s dynamics, as it is rare to see sibling rivalries and bickerings play out in adult characters. Alvarez shows that no one knows us as well as our sisters --- and no one can infuriate us as much, either. The sisterhood’s quest to find their unstable sister anchors the book and provides structure to the uncertainty of Mario and Estela’s plight, along with bringing up thought-provoking discussions about mental illness, the rights of senior citizens, and the twisted ties of family dynamics and hierarchies. Even better, their dialogue is spot on, whether they are gossiping, bemoaning long-held slights, or playing out common rivalries.

Though it centers on human tragedy, AFTERLIFE is full of a resounding hope that comes in the smallest of moments, the ones where we act with love. Neither Alvarez nor her book can solve the problems of social imbalance, ignorance or racism, but they can --- and do --- remind us that we must be present in one another’s lives and that the age-old mantra of putting on one’s own oxygen mask first only applies to those with the privilege to do so. While our identities and self-assurances cannot come from one another, in AFTERLIFE, Alvarez proves that our human experiences must, and the more we allow the plights of others to bleed into our own perspectives, the more we can let love work its magic.
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Antonia is recently retired and widowed on the same day.  She is trying to figure out her life without the help of her partner and lover, the good cop she calls him.  She finds herself looking at her problems like Sam would and feels in the process that he is resurrecting inside her.  Antonia acknowledges that when someone you love dies, part of you dies with them but they return, bringing you back with them.  She asks herself, is that was the afterlife is: “an eternity of rememberings?  Over to you, Sam.  She talks to him in her head.”  It pains her that Sam exists in the afterlife, romping around in her head, but Antonia will not have Sam to keep her alive in his imagination.

Because she is bilingual she does translating for Spanish speakers in their small Vermont hospital.  And somehow she gets herself in the middle of the dilemma of an undocumented, very pregnant teenager.  Add into this two of her three high achieving sisters need her to help sort out Izzy, the sister who appears to be experiencing manic/depression.  Antonia knows what she would do but she tries to approach her decisions with a healthy dose of what would Sam do.  And when Izzy goes dark, the three of them hire an investigator and devote themselves to finding her, terrified for the outcome.

Following Izzy’s activities they uncover evidence of her erratic behaviors and also a trail of people who adore her eccentricities.  Failing to find her, the sisters had to ask themselves, who among them hadn’t been negligent toward Izzy?  Antonia was familiar with a friend of Carson McCullers who said, “You had to like burdens to love Carson.  Many of us could not afford her emotionally or economically.”  The voyage to find Izzy becomes a voyage of self discovery for Antonia, learning to live without her teaching career or Sam in her big empty house.
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This is a thoughtful and enthralling character-driven book.  I love the story's focus on relationships between middle-aged sisters.
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Small sips.  How poignant. How perfect. Small sips. And the title, Afterlife. Many of us live an afterlife...the time before (fill in the blank) and the time after (fill in the blank).  By the end of this story...I wasn’t taking small sips...I was taking big gulps. A very well written story.  Thanks to NetGalley and publisher for the ARC.
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I absolutely loved this novel! This is the second novel that I read by Julia Alvarez and I was left wanting more. This story is so beautifully written. This story touches on life after losing a loved one and the way we all grief differently. I also enjoyed the all too real family drama. How the people you love the most can also be the people that cause you the most pain. In this case, the story follows the four sisters and how they each react to problems that arise along the way, but at the end of the day, they are there for each other.

Antonia Vega lives in rural Vermont and after losing her husband, Sam, she finds herself trying to figure out life after him. Sam was a doctor and attended to the needs of all the undocumented people in the area. Antonia is put in a position to help someone that truly needs her, but they are essentially a stranger to her. The question that comes from this is, what do we owe others? Should she help them because she can? If she doesn't, is she a bad person? How long can you play the grief card? This book truly analyzes the idea of allowing us to forgive ourselves for what could have been and for what wasn't able to be.
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I couldn't wait to read Afterlife, and came away strangely disappointed.  While the characters are interesting, I found the story rather bland.  It didn't always seem realistic, especially since the main character seemed to vaguely mourn the sudden loss of her husband, which should have been debilitating.
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Was delighted to feature this in Zoomer magazine's Books section column on the essential reading list of early summer (online, as well as in the June print edition).
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This book was well-written and thoughtful.  It is a book for out times covering topics such as loss, mental illness, and illegal immigration.  Alvarez shows once again that she is a master story teller, and I fell in love with most of her characters.

Antonia, the main character, is one of four sisters born in the Dominican Republic whose family immigrated to the US while the sisters were children.   A retired English professor, Antonia  has unexpectedly lost her beloved husband, Sam, within the last year.   The sisterhood, as the sisters call themselves, beckons, and a visit to one sister turns into an invitation for all four.  However, the oldest sister, Izzy, goes missing, and since her behavior has been very odd lately, the sisters are worried.  They end up hiring a private detective and personally retracing her steps.

Meanwhile, Antonia becomes a caretaker for Estela, a young, pregnant illegal immigrant who shows up at her home in Vermont.  The girl has been rejected by her boyfriend and leans on Antonia.  With her sister missing,, Antonia calls on others to help Estela.  Wisely, Antonia lets Sam's kindness and empathy guide her as she navigates a new world with complicated questions and answers.  She is thrilled but worried when Izzy reappears.

I won't include a spoiler, but let's just say Alvarez does not give us a fairy tale.  However, Antonia begins to heal and find her truth with the help of friends, causes, her sisters, and the beloved poetry and literature she knows so well.  In the final scene, Alvarez offers a lovely image of a broken dish that is put back together with care and is still beautiful . One is left feeling that Antonia will find her way into the light.
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Author: Julia Alvarez
(The review is from an ARC provided to me by Net galley)
This is the first adult novel in almost fifteen years from the author.

From the NPR interview” Julia Alvarez has written what she calls her first novel as "an elder."
The author of bestselling novels for adults and children, including How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies See the six-minute interview at

The story is about Antonia Vega, a recently widowed retired professor, her relationships with her sisters, and some undocumented immigrants she connects with through a man who is working on a neighboring Vermont farm. When her husband Sam dies and her unstable sister disappears and when Antonia returns home one evening she finds a pregnant, undocumented teenager on her doorstep.
Antonia has always sort direction in the literature she loves but now actions are needed with the issues she faces. Antonia has to be the strong sister when they find her missing sister and 
to assist the pregnant teenager she felt she could not abandon.
Alvarez threads the politics, the distrust of the times, the grief we face, tragic loss and how we keep families together.
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This book was funny, full of heart, and a great story about grief and identity. Characters pull you in and you don't want to leave Antonia or her sisters. Alvarez is a great writer and reading this book was like greeting an old friend.
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Steering a course between the Scylla of her husband’s sudden death and the Charybdis of her own rebirth as a widow, Antonia Vega, the central character of Alvarez’s wise, deft and often gently wry new novel, dickers constantly with choices – self-improvement or selfishness, her own priorities or others’?

A retired English professor immersed in her grief and loneliness, Antonia is often to be found in what she calls ‘the word thicket’, a place of double-meaning, wordplay and quotation, from the likes of Wordsworth, Tolstoy, Rilke, Auden and many more.  Alvarez plays the same game with the duality of her title. Is this a novel about saintly departed Sam’s afterlife – and influence – or Antonia’s? Is the key question for Antonia, ‘What would Sam do?” (usually the right or better thing) or, ‘If I try to be like you, who will be like me?’ This last query, posed by a Jewish therapist who spent time in a concentration camp, is bizarrely but importantly resonant to Hispanic Antonia whose response to dilemmas is generally an insular, often sceptical process of cerebral digestion.

Her roots are in the Dominican Republic. Her parents are dead but her three sisters – Tilly, Izzy and Mona – are very much alive and the sisterhood is a vibrant and significant component of the story. When possibly bi-polar Izzy goes missing, the other three must collaborate in their efforts to find her, a process simultaneously loving, comical, histrionic, combative and resourceful. Alvarez is no stranger to stories of sisters.Her debut, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, followed four sisters from the Dominican Republic adjusting to life after immigration to the US , while In the Time of the Butterflies traced a different Hispanic sisterhood, that one based on true and tragic history.

Antonia, meanwhile, has another problem, one which she must face alone, at home in rural Vermont. Her solitude there has been breached by the uninvited complications of an undocumented worker on a neighboring farm. Now Antonia becomes involved in a couple’s personal drama and pregnancy, pulling her into both the twilight world of illegal immigration and also a strange, unexpected territory of protective feelings.

Antonia’s afterlife is a journey full of questions and quandaries, good choices and others, dilemmas of the moral and personal kind which connect at multiple levels with America’s essential issues of the moment. For what, and whom, are citizens, employers, law-enforcement officers and family members responsible? How far should any one person go, to help another, related or not? Alvarez juggles all this with humor and restraint, drawing forth a portrait of a female sensibility addressing some of the most fundamental questions of social engagement.

And yet, for all its interiority, this is a book that slips down like water. Alvarez experience and humanity translates into a soft-spoken but resonant examination of the words we think and say, and the deeds we do on the strength of them.
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**Thank you Netgalley, Julia Alvarez and Algonquin Books for my gifted copy.**

This beautiful story about love and loss really captured me from the first paragraph.

We follow the main character Antonia as she navigates her “new” life. She’s recently retired, her beloved husband has just passed, her sister has disappeared and she’s trying to find her purpose. Add in a pregnant undocumented teenager and you have one chaotic life!

I listened to the audiobook simultaneously while reading this book and I kept forgetting that this was a work of fiction. It had so many moments that made it seem like a memoir.

Truly a beautifully written novel.
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I've never read any of Alvarez's work before but heard this was already rated highly, so I was incredibly disappointed when I read her new novel. It's about Antonia, a recently widowed retired professor, her relationships with her sisters, and some undocumented immigrants she connects with through a man who is working on a neighboring Vermont farm. The problem was that I found I didn't care about any of the characters, and the plot seemed disjointed. I did not find even one likable character, which is a fiction deal breaker for me. Lots of drama with her sisters, and for me, it just didn't connect with the undocumented immigrant story. As the main character is recently widowed, she keeps referencing what her husband would have done and she then moves towards that decision, but doesn't seem to have her own.
This book was offered to me from Algonquin books to read and to provide an honest review.
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