After This by Alice McDermott

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After This by Alice McDermott

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Follow the Keane family through the third quartile of the 20th the world turns and the world order just continues.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747590200

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The New York Time Bestseller it proclaims on its appropriately subdued jacket. The blurb is full of glowing praise from other sources: 'genius... the most masterful imaginable prose... '; 'page by page brilliance'; 'one of our finest novelists'.

I have to tell you this, to balance the fact that I disagree.

After This follows the Keane family from just after the Second World War up into the aftermath of Vietnam. A working class catholic family...just getting on with their lives as thousands if not millions of Americans would have done during those years. There is nothing to single them out particularly. The four children scrap and love each other, they go through school, grow up, go to college... or not. Another war comes and even the tragedy it brings is passed lightly over - after all it was not so different to what thousands of other Americans experienced.

If not much is going to happen, then the worth must be in the writing either in the style or the capturing of character, or time, and of place. In this I found McDermott trying too hard. In places I found her attempts at lyricism so overworked... phrases repeated... emphasis hitting too hard... that I truly wanted to put the book aside.

There is the heavy labouring of always referring to her central character as Mary Keane, and her husband as John Keane... whilst the children, and the friend were allowed to be called by their Christian names alone. That the neighbour was Mr Persichetti, I could live with... my parents have neighbours who were there before I was born and whom I always called by their title & surname, while others gathered honorary titles of aunty and uncle, subsequently dropped as the respect required of the young eroded in our growing older. But throughout - Mary Keane, whose story this is, is always but always (once she has become so) Mary Keane. I can but wonder what the aim was. The effect for me was to distance me from the characters... to make me care less about them and what might happen. Mary might be a neighbour or a friend, someone whose story could touch you... Mary Keane is someone you read about, separate, apart and therefore ultimately irrelevant.

The absence of 'event'. Of course things do happen. Mary meets John Keane, they marry, they have their children. The world gets over the Second War and America lumbers into Vietnam. The sexual revolution arrives, with its attendants: booze and drugs and rock'n'roll. Abortion becomes legal, but there are still shot-gun weddings. The Catholic Church tries to modernise and realises that maybe it doesn't really need to. There are pregnancies and abortions. Four new people grow into individuals each of whom turns out to be not what their parents had hoped or imagined... maybe not even what they themselves hoped or imagined. Neighbourhoods change... and unlovable girls grow through spinsterhood into disturbed unlovable old maids, surviving on their own spite and the kindness of others. So much happens. But McDermott passes over it all so lightly, attaches so little emphasis to any of it. We see snippets, or reactions, parallels and parables. Portraits of mere moments that enable her to cram some twenty or thirty years into 280 pages.

All of this happens, she seems to say, but none of it matters at all.

In that she may be right... but then why tell us about it?

Not just tell us about it, but presage it years before it does come to pass... we are told what Mr Persichetti will say... and when the time comes and he does say it, it should have been part of a more total picture, not still just a second or two's exchange.

Given the praise heaped from other quarters, I cannot help but feel that I have missed something in this volume... that perhaps I just don't "get it". Perhaps the error is mine in reading it hard on the heels of The Birthdays by Heidi Pitlor which tackles very similar themes, but handles them more deftly by focussing more narrowly.

This is not to say that the book is completely without merit. McDermott is a sharp observer of the details of life. Her depictions of family dynamics and individual motivations (selfish and altruist and often a strange combination of the two) are vivid and true. There were chapters where she did actually hold me to wonder what this storm - real or metaphorical - would bring in its wake. But then that wake would float away so quickly that it was hard to tell.

Perhaps McDermott is simply saying it is all detail, and of no significance. Perhaps my problem is that I want it to be significant. Perhaps it is simply that the book is very clever in its avoidance of the emotion of the situations that should move us and my problem is that I would prefer emotion over sophistry. Whatever it is: After This ends somewhat abruptly and left me none-to-fussed as to what might have happened after.

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Teddy Weinberger said:

Enjoyed Lesley Mason's review of "After This," with which I also was disappointed. Lesley don't be puzzled at the glowing blurbs on the book's dustjacket. I just went on-line and found both NY Times's reviewers were also underwhelmed by the book. What I found incredibly frustrating about the treatment of Mary Keane was not so much the constant referring to her by her full name as the fact that she basically drops out of the story after the birth of her last baby. After that, the book goes on to all sorts of tangents, following the four children's lives--including an incredibly long chapter that takes place in England (Annie, the third child, is a junior-year-abroad English literature student and an evening at Professor Elizabeth's Wallace home is described in excruciatinly long detail). Happy to pick up in the review a reference to an author I am not familiar with--Heidi Pitlor. I hope to read something by Ms. Pitlor, since I approve of Ms. Mason's taste.

Shalom, Teddy Weinberger