Life after Death: A Novel

Life after Death: A Novel

by Carol Muske-Dukes

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"Why don't you just die?" Boyd Schaeffer asks her husband, Russell, one night during a fight.

The next day, he does just that. Russell was rich, sensitive, charming, but always unreliable and it is not clear to Boyd what emotional legacy his untimely death has bequeathed her.

Boyd already has a complicated relationship to death. A former obstetrician,


"Why don't you just die?" Boyd Schaeffer asks her husband, Russell, one night during a fight.

The next day, he does just that. Russell was rich, sensitive, charming, but always unreliable and it is not clear to Boyd what emotional legacy his untimely death has bequeathed her.

Boyd already has a complicated relationship to death. A former obstetrician, she fled both her profession and New York City when one of her patients died. Back then, she'd escaped with Russell to settle in Minnesota. Now, she embarks (along with her small daughter) on a journey into the underworld—ajourney of grief, self-reproach, and self-discovery so profound and surprising that her individual life in its quiet midwestern setting takes on the universal lineaments of myth. Boyd's companions on this journey into the shadow world between existence and nonexistence include a lonely undertaker; an unconventional embalmer, who demonstrates his trade for her; and her own daughter, who offers a child's instinctive wisdom about life's mysteries. With their help and her own persistence and courage, Boyd begins to understand that endings are often also beginnings, that the Book of Life and Death is constantly being rewritten before our eyes.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"I'm stronger than my own power to destroy. That's my motto now," says Boyd Schaeffer, the protagonist of Muske-Dukes's latest novel (after Saving St. Germ; Dear Digby). Like a fairy tale, Boyd's story begins with a careless but fateful event: a curse uttered during an argument with her insidiously charming husband, Russell, who reveals to her that he believes he is dying. Boyd wishes aloud that he would die, since she suspects him of getting drunk and briefly losing their daughter, Freddy, at the park. It turns out Russell wasn't exaggerating, as his death on the tennis court of their St. Paul home the next day proves. Forty-two-year-old Russell seemed to have everything money, looks, sensitivity. But the two things he really wanted the unconditional love of his wife and literary renown evaded his grasp. His death leaves Boyd with a question and a ghost: who was Russell? Boyd goes back into medicine (a field she left years earlier, after a patient died during an abortion procedure), snubs just about everyone she knows and becomes progressively more bewildered by her own grief as she tries to understand better the circumstances surrounding Russell's death. Boyd is not what one would call likable she's confrontational, stubborn and irascible but it's hard not to be won over by her. Her foil in the novel is Will Youngren, the funeral-home owner who buries Russell. Her quest for the meaning of her husband's life mirrors Will's need to end his own long mourning for his dead twin sister, and the two begin to find strength and support in each other. Muske-Dukes, who is also a poet (An Octave Above Thunder, etc.), has shaped an exquisitely written tale with raw emotional appeal, a deeply humanistic story of death, grief and survival. 5-city author tour. (On-sale: June 12) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Though her objectives are often transparent, Muske-Dukes's latest, if a bit macabre, is an affecting tale of a guilt-haunted man and woman who learn to accept the inevitable presence of death in life. The story, Minneapolis-set, moves between past and present as the two protagonists learn age-old lessons. Fortyish Boyd Schaeffer, a widow and the mother of preschool daughter Freddy, is an obstetrician who stopped practicing when a woman she was performing a late abortion on died. Will Youngren, also known teasingly as Dr. Death, runs an undertaking business. He's 40, unmarried, and can cope with most deaths except those of babies and young children. Will and Boyd meet when she comes to make the arrangements for the funeral of her husband Russell, who has died of an apparent heart attack while playing tennis. Both are obsessed with the dead: Boyd not only has never forgotten the fatal abortion, but she now feels responsible for Russell's death as well. The day before he died, they had quarreled, and she had asked him to do her a favor and "die." And Will still feels responsible for not having saved his twin sister Signe, whose sled careened into a tree when they were 14. As Boyd, troubled by Russell's seemingly continued presence (she keeps finding notes he wrote for her) starts practicing medicine again and tries to help daughter Freddy accept Russell's death, she discovers the real cause behind it. There are some other bittersweet truths that emerge about Russell, a charming, wealthy man and a liar—all, as it turns out, smoke and mirrors. And when Will tells her about Signe, both find opportunities to exorcise their ghosts and move on. An intelligent, sometimes luminous take ona distressing subject.
From the Publisher
“An aching awareness of mortality...suffuses every scene in Carol Muske-Dukes’ luminous new novel, which turns a tale of sudden loss into an astonishing meditation on love and bereavement.”

“Carol Muske-Dukes’s writing is filled with poignancy and humor, achieved through her understanding of what it means to encounter death through the peculiar circumstance of being alive.”
—Steve Martin

“In her passionate novel Life After Death, Carol Muske-Dukes takes us right up against the edge where all lives end. Her prose is stunning, as always; and her fusion of grief and laughter and rage is extraordinary.”
—Ursula Hegi

“Daring and full of surprises, this story takes on the big questions and holds them up to the light, examining them, shifting them. We see life after death—and life before death—from many angles. In scenes rendered with crisp, lucid prose, we are given a range of perspectives on being human; some are recognizable and some are entirely new.”
—Elizabeth Strout

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

"You left her in the park, babe," she cried. "You left her there all alone, babe. You drove off and then you couldn't even remember where she was. Jesus fucking Christ, what's the matter with you?"

"What's the matter with me?"

"What could possibly be the matter? You left a four-year-old all alone in a city park—hey, I'm delighted. She'll learn to be independent, right? Today you taught her that her own father could let her wander off, maybe get kidnapped, get lost. Then you walk away and you call me and say that you can't remember where you left her!"

"I didn't walk away."

"Russell, don't do this. Thank God someone from the preschool saw her there all alone and brought her home."

Meet the Author

Carol Muske-Dukes is the director of the graduate program in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. Her most recent collection of poetry, An Octave Above Thunder, was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She has written two novels—Saving St. Germ and Dear Digby—and a collection of critical essays. She lives in Los Angeles.

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