Antonia Vega has had the rug pulled out from under her. She has just retired from the college where she taught English when her beloved husband, Sam, suddenly dies. And then more jolts: her bighearted but unstable sister disappears, and Antonia returns home one evening to find a pregnant, undocumented teenager on her doorstep. Antonia has always sought direction in the literature she loves, but now she finds that the world demands more of her than words.
... striking and lovely ... there are two things worth noting about this slim novel. The first is the way Alvarez inserts literary references into Antonia’s inner monologue. A slew of poets and authors play in her thoughts like a soundtrack and it’s fun for readers to either get the reference or look it up ... The second device worth noting is Alvarez’s refusal to use quotation marks. It’s jarring at first and sometimes difficult to figure out who’s talking, but you do get used to it. Perhaps it’s just another way for Alvarez to maintain the economy of her writing. Like her main character, words are what drives her and while Antonia’s journey is all about finding more than just words to navigate a world without Sam, Alvarez finds the perfect words more often than not in this stunning novel.
As Alvarez has done so beautifully in previous books, she offers a memorable portrait of sisterhood ... In one moving scene after another, Alvarez dramatizes the sustaining power of stories, whether for immigrants in search of a better life or for widows surviving a spouse’s death. True to its title, Afterlife cannily explores what it means to go on after a loss.
In this latest work, the author reaps the fruits of her earlier literary efforts, with Spanish words and phrases unfurling freely across the page without the awkward signaling of italics or quotation ... Like so much of Alvarez’s work, Afterlife is anchored not just in easy humor and sharp observation, but in her fine-tuned sense for the intimacies of immigrant sisterhood. Unlike her previous novels, however, this one ably tackles the subject of privilege as well ... Alvarez never goes so far as to suggest how exactly one might correct this social imbalance, or how to reconcile a simultaneous attentiveness to oneself and to others. The world — like Alvarez’s aging characters — is too set in its ways for such swift enlightenment, or change. But Afterlife does contain some hope for human empathy.