Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life, her first novel in 17 years, is an absorbing, sensitive illustration of life in transition. The author, who will appear at the Margaret Mitchell House on Tuesday, April 30, sets her story in Pine Haven retirement center in fictional Fulton, North Carolina, and follows a series of characters as they process what it means to make a new life after their old one has ended.
Many of the characters are elderly residents of Pine Haven, but others are young to middle-aged and just as anxious to understand how their pasts will impact their futures. Though some are waiting to die and others are waiting to change marriages or jobs, all the characters are poised in a hollow space between phases.
Some try to navigate the transition by idolizing the past, such as Rachel, who has moved to North Carolina to walk in the footsteps of her dead lover. Others, such as Joanna, who leaves a welter of failed marriages behind her, try to acknowledge the pain of the past by leaving it alone. By the novel’s conclusion, most will understand how their connections to other characters play a critical role in their own transitions.
For each character, there is opportunity for a better experience in the next stage. As the title suggests, there can be life after “real” life has been lived.
McCorkle’s premise is not lighthearted, but the treatment of her characters and their situations is wickedly funny. The hilarity of their daily experiences at Pine Haven lightens the depressing reality of their situations. McCorkle’s presentation of these characters and her clever humor power the story, which is light on plot. There’s a loose arc that gestures toward a traditional narrative structure, but the book is primarily a series of interconnected vignettes. Although it ends with a jarring action that feels like a loud, discordant note in a sophisticated symphony, the charm of the characters and their stories nonetheless makes this novel wholly captivating.
Joanna Lamb, the closest this loose pastiche of tales has to a main character, has just returned home from a life of wandering. Her search has taken her to many cities and involved multiple marriages. After hitting rock bottom and finding solace with a man dying of cancer, she realizes that her aim in life should be to help others. She returns to Fulton to run the family’s hot dog stand and volunteers as a hospice counselor at Pine Haven.
She befriends CJ, the tattooed hairstylist at Pine Haven and the single mother of a young son. CJ desperately wants to escape the fate of her own mother, a woman who, like CJ, was beautiful and a favorite with the married men in Fulton. Their friendship helps both women navigate the challenges of living on the social fringe of a small Southern town.
Sadie Randolph, who has spent her entire life in Fulton, also understands the value of helping others. She’s a retired third-grade teacher of 30 years who spends her time enjoining people to be kind and crafting handmade photo montages to “create” memories for Pine Haven residents. Regardless of whether a resident has been to the Taj Mahal or not, Sadie can cut and paste the face to the Indian palace to suggest that he or she has. The notion is slightly silly, but residents line up for Sadie’s pictures, indicating that the real desire is to reshape the past in an effort to smooth the future.
Life After Life is full of people wanting to help others, a major leitmotif, but the story is not so saccharine as to be devoid of villains. Kendra plots to leave her husband, a former pupil of Sadie’s, and may know the truth behind the disappearance of her daughter’s beloved dog. Kendra’s husband Ben, who might have been a talented young magician when he was in Sadie’s class, has evolved into someone as selfish, in his own way, as his wife. Their marriage is a battleground, and their daughter Abby flees to Pine Haven to spend time with Sadie.
McCorkle’s exploration of this couple and their impact on their daughter is penetrating. Her assessment of their selfishness and its damage, another theme, is razor sharp.
Whether probing the lives of the kindhearted or the selfish, the old or the young, the author creates such voluminous reality that it’s hard to stop reading. Though the denouement jars in its abruptness, the reading experience is pleasant enough to withstand the jolt. This is a classic Southern tale, full of engaging characters and fascinating stories sugared with old-fashioned gossip. It’s also full of hope and second chances. Long-time McCorkle fans will hail her return, while new readers will scour library shelves in search of her earlier works.
McCorkle’s book is not the only novel out this spring with the title “Life After Life.” Find out about the other on our facebook page.