38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
Jill I. Shtulman
- Published on Amazon.com
I thought this was a marvelous little gem. It's a novel that's formed by the interconnection of several stories about the Keane family (and isn't that really what life is all about...interconnected stories?) This is an "ordinary" family: one son goes to Vietnam, another goes off to college, a daughter travels to London for her education, another stays home (no spoiler). But it's in their very ordinariness that this book shines.
I get tired of reviews from readers who can't enjoy a book without an adventure-a-minute plot. There IS a place for books like that, but this is not one of them. It's a character-based book, and the characters come alive. I feel as if I know every single one of them; as if they could have been my next door neighbors or the family down the block.
Some say Alice McDermott is a "Catholic writer." I was never brainwashed with religion like some; I see her as a universal writer. The religion here is a backdrop to the lives of the characters; something that gives their life structure and community, but not necessarily meaning. They have to find the meaning within themselves.
The writing is so powerful -- and authentic -- that I re-read passages just to review the author's construction of sentences. I will not easily forget the family members that populated this book.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
You didn't have to grow up Catholic, like the families in this book, to identify entirely with its story. You just had to be there.
For those of us whose childhoods intersected with the "Sixties" as popular culture understands it, the shock of being raised one way (e.g., wearing white gloves to a department store; dressing up to go to the movies) with a deep and constant value system--and having that system completely ridiculed, turned upside down and labeled obsolete in just a few tumultuous years, was all too real, and is memorably described in this book.
Here, we meet the Keanes, good, decent middle-class devout Catholics who raise their four children around their church, Catholic school, and all the social values that come with that lifestyle. There is no divorce. There is no abortion (at least as far as these people understand life). Vietnam is a faraway and uninteresting place. And then, seemingly overnight, everything changes.
We see the four Keane children, two boys and two girls, encounter every cliche of the Sixties, except that if you lived it, it was all too real: unwanted pregnancy, unwanted draft into the horrible Vietnam War, sex without love or any commitment, drugs -- the litany is endless. Even the Keanes' beloved church is "modernized" to the point that it no longer seems a church.
Some of the characters survive, able to accept the changes and act accordingly. Others do not. All makes perfect sense.
I have ordered this book for a dear friend who DID grow up Catholic, but that is not a prerequisite to experiencing this wonderful, special book. Highly recommended.
55 of 66 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Alice McDermott is a good writer. She casts a wise and loving eye over her turf, the suburban New York City Irish Catholic scene during the baby boom years. In several books, especially Charming Billy, she successfully evokes the humor and pathos of her chosen people. She's particularly good on the bonds of family, the ways in which fealty to one's tribe can simultaneously prop up and chafe a soul.
Unfortunately, After This is not one of her better novels. It's not even a novel, actually, but a series of linked episodes about the Keane family as they make their non-reflective way from the fifties to the seventies. This structure can work, and has, back to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, which used a series of small moments in small lives to say something profound about a place and a time. But the episodes in After This are too elliptical to build upon, and the fractured structure becalms the plot.
McDermott has set herself the challenge of writing something interesting about determinedly average people. Mother Mary has almost resigned herself to spinsterhood when she meets John, an older WW II veteran, at a lunch counter in Manhattan. They marry, move to the suburbs, create four children. The oldest, Jacob is a tender, often feckless boy. His younger brother Michael, more wised-up and aggressive, torments Jacob throughout their childhood. Bookish Annie stands in for the aspiring intellectuals in blue collar families, and baby Clare is a simpler girl, beloved by all. Because McDermott leaps from person to person, we don't spend enough time with any one of the Keanes to become invested in their doings. The most sympathetic character in the book is Mary's friend Pauline. Pauline at least has a feisty, resentful attitude toward the world she lives in, which lends poignancy to her late-life breakdown.
This is a book of small moments. The big events - WWII and Vietnam, the love affairs and accidental pregnancies - happen offstage. We get the reverberations in the lives of the Keanes, but it's hard to sympathize with such passive people. Take Jacob getting drafted as a perfect example. It's 1970, and he draws a low draft number. There's no real debate about whether he'll go to Vietnam, which is odd in itself, since most young men of his age and intelligence debated this endlessly. We don't see his decision-making or learn how he feels about the war; he's simply swept away on the tide of government policy. He's surrendered before the first shot is fired, which makes it hard to work up the requisite pity for the bad fate that befalls him.
The hard-bitten Catholicism of the Irish provides the background music of this book. Since the Church and the Parish are so central to the Keanes, it's logical for the reader to wonder whether McDermott sees Catholicism as a good or bad force in their lives. Even though there are scenes of confession and communion, priestly musings and absolutions, and a nun's anti-feminist rant, you'll finish the novel still wondering. The Keanes treat Catholicism like the weather: something to accept or avoid, but not to question.
There are two good set pieces in the middle of the book, which would have worked equally well as standalone short stories. One involves Michael getting drawn into the social scene at an oddball bar near his upstate New York campus, which is his way of rebelling against the humdrum life he sees lined up in front of him like another shot of cheap whiskey. The other is a funny send-up of British academia during Annie's year abroad. And there are specific passages that achieve a quiet grace, including a lovely scene about grace itself that happens right at the end of the book during Clare's wedding.
If you came of age in the New York area during the Eisenhower/Kennedy/Johnson years, you can read After This for the way McDermott's precise prose evokes the sense memory of that time - like pawing through the old Polaroids someone in the family tucked away in a drawer. If you're looking for new insights about the era, or to be swept up in the drama of an Irish American family wrestling with its fate, look elsewhere.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Friends have suggested for years that I should read Alice McDermott's works because she is a modern "Catholic" writer. I count many "Catholic" writers among my favorites: in fiction Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy immediately come to mind. If I ever write "the great American novel" I'd love it to be compared to the likes of Jon Hassler, a wonderful and in my opinion underrated writer who I think gives some of the most accurate depictions of Catholicism in the United States. Alice McDermott would seem like a logical recommendation as an author to read in his writings. I've also read some interviews with McDermott about writing and the role her being Catholic plays in her writing and I agreed with my friends, I'd probably enjoy her work. Now that I've read AFTER THIS, I can see why McDermott was so highly recommended.
AFTER THIS is not so much a novel as a collection of sketches. The sketches involve the Keane family: John and Mary and their children Jacob, Michael, Anne, and Claire. The story begins after the Second World War and ends in the 1970's. We are drawn into the personalities of the characters and the major events of the time: the changes in the Catholic Church as a result of Vatican II, changing attitudes in society regarding women and sexuality, the Vietnam War, and the pervasive freedoms that took place in the 60's and 70's are all a part of the book, but none of the events takes center stage, even the Vietnam War which ends up taking a great toll on the family. Some reviewers have used a photograph analogy to describe the book and before reading any reviews, this is what came to my mind too. It's almost as if the narrator is looking through a photo album, more or less chronologically arranged, and tells the story behind the photo. The events depicted in the photo may not be related to the story, but somehow it evokes a memory. The writing is controlled and at times almost poetic and through understatement we see the impact of changing times on this family.
If readers are looking for a plot based novel, this may not be the best choice. McDermott takes us leisurely through events, and may not include as many details as we'd like. Other scenes may seem omitted though I think it could be argued that after readers finish the novel, it is more whole than may be apparent while reading. There are a few plotlines that perhaps could be expanded upon and developed that are not, but this may be intentional since McDermott maintains excellent control throughout the work. Still it's a good read with a typical, but still endearing family.
18 of 23 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
I loved the beginning of this book - the characters are so richly developed. The main couple is very interesting. Then about half way through, when you have barely read any detail about their children, the book turns from them being children to them being in college. I hate it to blunt, but half way through the book, I hadn't developed any interest in the children so the fact that the whole second part of the book is about them and with little more about the parents (who were the main characters) left me very disappointed. It seemed almost like the writer lost track of what was happening in the book and started a new story line without the main characters in it. Very disappointing.