Review of Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life

Life After Life Book Cover

Life After Life by Jill McCorkle

Publication Date: March 2013

Genre: Contemporary Literary Fiction, Southern Fiction

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Jill McCorkle s first novel in seventeen years is alive with the daily triumphs and challenges of the residents and staff of Pine Haven Estates, a retirement facility, which is now home to a good many of Fulton, North Carolina s older citizens. Among them, third-grade teacher Sadie Randolph, who has taught every child in town and believes we are all eight years old in our hearts; Stanley Stone, once Fulton s most prominent lawyer, now feigning dementia to escape life with his son; Marge Walker, the town s self-appointed conveyor of social status who keeps a scrapbook of every local murder and heinous crime; and Rachel Silverman, recently widowed, whose decision to leave her Massachusetts home and settle in Fulton is a mystery to everyone but her. C.J., the pierced and tattooed young mother who runs the beauty shop, and Joanna, the hospice volunteer who discovers that her path to a good life lies with helping folks achieve good deaths, are two of the staff on whom the residents depend.

McCorkle puts her finger on the pulse of every character s strengths, weaknesses, and secrets. And, as she connects their lives through their present circumstances, their pasts, and, in some cases, through their deaths, she celebrates the blessings and wisdom of later life and infuses this remarkable novel with hope and laughter.

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In the Afterward of Life After Life, Jill McCorkle explains her overall intention in writing this book:

“This novel is a love song to memory and life.”

I think this is an apt and eloquent summation of this moving, insightful look at living, dying, and all that lies between the two.  A quick scan of the book’s description may leave you thinking this is a book about the woes of the elderly as they face impending death and that its tone may be too morbid and dark for your tastes.  However, it would be a mistake to reduce the plot to such a simplistic view. McCorkle has created a vibrant array of characters that extends beyond the Pine Haven Estates Retirement Village and Assisted Living and into the community of the fictitious Fulton, North Carolina.  Instead of a dark and depressing read, I found the book to be an introspective, heartwarming narrative filled with humor and the possibility of second chances.

The structure of the book is different from the typical plot sequence I typically read. Each chapter is narrated from a particular character’s POV and the book is really a collection of vignettes woven together through the characters’ interlocking stories. The author has an amazing ability to get into the minds of her characters, both young and old, and bring their personalities to life. She paints a vivid verbal portrait of the main characters by describing their present situations and their reflections about the past. I learned about the conflicts they endured, their yearnings, their loves as well as their fears, and regrets. One common feature I found among the adult characters’ ruminations is how important it is to discern what really matters in life and get rid of the inconsequential clutter.

The plot is very much character driven and although the characters’ stories seem random in the first part of the book, as the novel progresses, I began to find surprising connections among the characters and discover how their lives, both the living and the dead, crisscrossed at various times and the impact that has had upon each of them.  The characters all have secrets which add a bit of mystery and suspense to the book as these secrets get unearthed. One of the central questions along the way is whether some of these characters have any hope of redemption.

Lots of characters are featured in the book, and McCorkle has really crafted an entire community. In fact, Fulton can be considered a character in and of itself because of the strong sense of place McCorkle has developed through her depiction of this small town’s Southern idiosyncrasies and her use of the local dialect.  The characters she depicts are human and flawed. They are realistic, and by “listening  in” on their reflections of the past, readers get to see the characters’ take a raw and honest look at their successes and failures.

One of my favorite characters is Joanna. She left Fulton years ago, and after a long arduous journey of trying to run away from her life and from herself, she finally takes the courageous step of returning home, where she becomes fodder for the gossipy townspeople.  Joanna has learned

“The longest and most expensive journey you will ever make is the one to yourself.”

Joanna is a volunteer in the hospice wing of the center, and keeps a notebook to record important notes about those close to death. She learned from Luke (also an influential character from Joanna’s past) that it is important to be with individuals at their moment of death, and her recollections are a tribute to them so they won’t be forgotten. Her entries provide the transition from the alternating featured characters’ stories to the voices of the dying as they release their last breath, and some of these monologues are so sweet while others are heartbreaking.

“The pain of losing people you love is the price of the ticket for getting to know them at all.”

A significant motif found throughout the book is ~magic~ disappearing and reappearing, and, although it took me awhile to discover its significance, I now understand how it fits into the overall scope of the plot since death is the ultimate act of disappearing.

While I have ample praise for this book, I also have some issues with the plot. First of all, I was disappointed with the ending. I didn’t see it coming until I turned the page to find empty space. Others may find the end appropriate, but I like tidy conclusions. I also think some of the story threads have been left dangling so the book lacks the full circle unity I most appreciate in a good novel. An example of this relates to the one character who is clearly an antagonist, but whose motives for his despicable actions are never fully explained and I want to know his ultimate outcome.

On the other hand, I enjoyed thinking about the themes McCorkle delves into, those related to the fragility of life, the various reactions people have to death, and the importance of the legacy one leaves behind.  In the Afterward, McCorkle states, “My hope is that Life After Life will entertain but also will leave the reader to connect to his or her own signals and memories. After all, That’s all that there is.”

Well, in this respect, McCorkle succeeded with me. I found myself frequently contemplating my own mortality, where I want to be in my twilight years, and what I will look back on with joy and with regret.  She subtly challenges us to peel back the layers of our lives and remove the clutter taking up too much space in our minds without leaving room to focus on what’s most important when we look back at the end of the day.

Source: Library Loan

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Jill McCorkleFive of Jill McCorkle’s seven previous books have been named New York Times Notables. Winner of the New England Booksellers Award, the Dos Passos Prize for Excellence in Literature, and the North Carolina Award for Literature, she has taught writing at the University of North Carolina, Bennington College, Tufts University, and Harvard. She lives near Boston with her husband, their two children, several dogs, and a collection of toads.

Author Links:  Goodreads Profile Page

Amazon:  Life After Life: A Novel

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