Life After Life
I started reading Jill McCorkle novels last week to see what they’re like, as she’s coming to UNC Chapel Hill for a reading and Eleanor is helping to organize her visit. First I read Ferris Beach, which is a kind of novel I rarely like, about growing up in the seventies. But then I read Life After Life, which gave me little glimpses of the characters from Ferris Beach as parents, grandparents, and already-departed neighbors, and they gave a kind of depth to a good story about people whose lives are already mostly lived, so I was glad I’d read the first one as background.
Between the first novel and the second, the spelling of one character’s name changes, from “Perry” to “Perri,” but it’s obviously the same beautiful girl, and in Life After Life, she is the already-dead mother of one of the main characters, C.J. We see how poverty affects a family into the second and third generation, because C.J. has a six-month-old son named Kurt.
C.J. has a friend named Joanna, who was married three times and has finally moved back to her hometown to work for a hospice and hear the stories of the people at Pine Haven, the local retirement home. The stories are more fun than I expected, as is the occasional bit of dialogue:
“I bet if you took better care of your hair and clothes you wouldn’t have lost so many husbands” Marge Walker said.
“Or if you stayed trim,” another woman—very overweight and out of breath-added.
“Or if you learned to tell busybodies to shut up,” Rachel Silverman said.
“Amen,” Stanley Stone said. “I second the attractive Yankee-accented broad with the slight stoop in her posture.:
“Trust me, Joanna liked to say. “I was married to a doctor. And a lawyer and an Indian chief. A butcher and baker and a candlestick maker.”
“And a queer, too,” Stanley said.
“Yes, and a gigolo,” Joanna added, and then said, “I have always been loved by children, the elderly, dogs, and the mentally handicapped.”
“Probably not the best announcement to make if you want to get a date,” C.J. said.
We learn just a little about the different inhabitants of Pine Haven. Stanley, whose wife Martha died and who wants his son Ned to get a fresh start. Rachel, who was in love with a local man named Joe and has moved to North Carolina from New England in order to see the places he told her about. Sadie, who taught eight-year-olds and can always appeal to the eight-year-old buried inside of anyone.
A lot of the novel centers on Abby, an almost-thirteen-year-old girl who likes spending time with the old people who live at Pine Haven. Abby’s mother Kendra is vain, selfish, and a social climber, which makes her the villain of the piece (“she spends a lot of time pushing Abby to call up or be friends with girls whose mothers Abby’s mom wants to be friends with”). Her father is affable but not very present, which leaves Abby free to spend her free time at Pine Haven.
There is a plot—in fact, there’s an off-the-page murder to be solved as soon as Joanna remembers something C.J. told her on the first pages of the novel. Most of the novel is quiet, though, as when Joanna thinks about one of the Pine Haven residents who recently died: “A whole life reduced to adjectives and a list of accomplishments. They placed a book in the chapel for residents to write their thoughts….Joanna could only imagine what her own obituary might say if she departed right now and perhaps that is what haunts Ned Stone. He believes who he is based on all that is said about him.”
Thanks to people like Joanna, the memories of the people living in this small, North Carolina town still have some influence on those they left behind, and for most of them, that’s comforting– that they can keep becoming more of who they are in the middle of a big web of complicated relationships that no one human will ever know about, much less be able to trace like they might try to trace their ancestry.
Living in a small, northern town where it seems to me that people don’t know that much about each other (although the ones from the college still occasionally give directions like “turn left where the Stevens’ house used to be”), I relished this story of the way the people in this fictional southern town are important to and interested in each other’s lives.