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Award-winning author Jill McCorkle takes us on a splendid journey through time and memory in this, her tenth work of fiction. Life After Life is filled with a sense of wonder at our capacity for self-discovery at any age. And the residents, staff, and neighbors of the Pine Haven retirement center (from twelve-year-old Abby to eighty-five-year-old Sadie) share some of life’s most profound discoveries and are some of the most true-to-life characters that you are ever likely to meet in fiction. Delivered with her ...
Award-winning author Jill McCorkle takes us on a splendid journey through time and memory in this, her tenth work of fiction. Life After Life is filled with a sense of wonder at our capacity for self-discovery at any age. And the residents, staff, and neighbors of the Pine Haven retirement center (from twelve-year-old Abby to eighty-five-year-old Sadie) share some of life’s most profound discoveries and are some of the most true-to-life characters that you are ever likely to meet in fiction. Delivered with her trademark wit, Jill McCorkle’s constantly surprising novel illuminates the possibilities of second chances, hope, and rediscovering life right up to the very end. She has conjured an entire community that reminds us that grace and magic can—and do—appear when we least expect it.
"Who knew death, regret, and lengthy ruminations about days past could add up to a novel this vibrant, hopeful, and compelling? . . . Gorgeously written . . . McCorkle's greatest gift is in illuminating the countless tiny moments that make up our time on Earth." —O: The Oprah Magazine
"Clever, bighearted, and wise." —Vanity Fair
“The elderly residents of Pine Haven live and yearn and challenge one another with an exuberance that jumps off the page.”—The New York Times “Home & Garden” section
“Leave it to McCorkle to plumb the ultimate new beginning in this down-home, Southern-style Book of the Dead. Illuminating, reassuring, and enlarging our understanding of the crossing from this world to the next, her novel sings with the mystical, the magical and the fragility of this thing called life.”—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Balances humor and sorrow.” —NPR’s All Things Considered
“A vividly voiced round-robin of interlocking stories set in and around a North Carolina retirement home . . . Great . . . Sharply real.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Funny and painful, Life After Life explores not dying, but rather the mysteries of living — the second chances, the human connection, the love. The result is an impressive and poignant interweaving of vibrant characters; overlapping tales create a whole that is greater than the separate parts. McCorkle returns to the novel with a deeper wisdom and moral intensity. With a Southern flair, she invites the reader to muse on what matters most in the days we are given. Was it worth the wait? In a word, yes.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
“McCorkle’s masterful microcosm invokes profound sadness, harsh insight and guffaws, often on the same page.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A powerful gift for dialogue has always animated Jill McCorkle’s fiction, and here we hear some astonishing voices . . . As readers, we feel honored to witness their passages.” —The Boston Globe
“A story and characters that readers won’t soon forget.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Who knew death, regret, and lengthy ruminations about days past could add up to a novel this vibrant, hopeful, and compelling? . . . Gorgeously written . . . McCorkle’s greatest gift is in illuminating the countless tiny moments that make up our time on Earth.”
“Clever, bighearted, and wise.”
“Great writing, poignancy, humor, wisdom—all are in abundance here. Jill McCorkle is one of the South’s greatest writers; she is also one of America’s.”
“By turns comic, insightful, and heart wrenching . . . Shows how old age can give us a second chance: to see ourselves rightly, be truer to those we love, and inspire those we leave behind.”
Now Joanna is holding the hand of someone waiting for her daughter to arrive. Only months ago, this woman—Lois Flowers—was one of the regulars in Pine Haven's dining room where the residents often linger long after the meal for some form of entertainment or another. She was a woman who kept her hair dyed black and never left her room without her hair and makeup and outfit just right. She had her color chart done in 1981 and kept the little swatches like paint chips in the zippered section of her purse. She told Joanna that having your colors done was one of the best investments a woman could ever make. "I'm a winter," she said. "It's why turquoise looks so good on me." She loved to sing and some nights she could convince several people to join in; other nights she simply stood in one corner and swayed back and forth like she might have been in Las Vegas singing everything she knew of Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney and Judy Garland. She loved anything Irving Berlin had ever written. Now she has forgotten everything except the face of her daughter, random lyrics, and that your shoes and purse should always match. Joanna has watched the daughter night after night leaning into her mother's ear to sing—first upbeat (clang, clang, clang went the trolley). She always ends with one of her very favorites like "It Could Happen to You" or "Over the Rainbow" or "What'll I Do?" Joanna—as ordered by Luke's many rules—keeps a notebook with an entry on each of the people she sits with. She has to do an official one to turn over to the nurse who oversees her work, but this is a different, personal notebook she writes just after someone has died. It's a notebook she bought and showed Luke to prove to him that she was taking his assignments seriously—a bright yellow college-ruled spiral-bound notebook, which was all she could find at the Thrifty Market there close to Luke's house. It was near the end for him so she didn't venture far. "This is my page," he told her. "Everybody should get at least a page." She writes what she knows: their names and birthplaces and favorite things. Sometimes she asks questions: What is your first memory? Your favorite time of day or holiday or teacher or article of clothing? How would you describe your marriage? Was there something you learned in your life that surprised you? She records the weather and season and last words if there are any. Luke said that this would be her religion, the last words and memories of the dying her litany. She should read and reread the entries regularly like devotionals. Keep us close, he said. Keep us alive. Don't ever let us disappear.
The longest and most expensive journey you will ever make is the one to yourself. Joanna's life is blip blip blip like images on an old film projector that keeps sticking and burning. She's been spliced a lot of times over the years, but finally she feels free—not perfect, not problem free, just free. No one likes to talk about the positive parts of getting older and aging into orphanhood, how with your parents you often bury a lot of things you were never able to confront or fix or let go of.
She has spent long hours discussing this with C.J., a girl most likely not to be Joanna's best friend, and yet she is. C.J. is half her age, punk and pierced and tattooed with a baby boy whose father she won't discuss—not yet at least. C.J. is beautiful and so unaware of it, long legs and hazel eyes and a beautiful dark complexion that leaves people perplexed and wondering about her ethnicity. It seems she might even be perplexed herself and camouflages herself with tattoos and loose clothing and colors of hair dyes that are not natural to any race.
C.J. claims to have lots of secrets, lots of ghosts, and she says she writes down all the bad stuff in her journal, which she calls Pandora's Box, and hides it there in the best security safe of all. She said she made a special trip to Costco to buy her "safe deposit box"—a mega-sized box of Kotex, which she then positioned at the back of her linen closet with "the sentry" placed in front: Monistat and Vagisil and all kinds of douches. She said it was a security system easily tested in the checkout line, the man next to her going from way too warm to icy cold in minutes. She said if there were any doubt, a good scratch in the right place would really get rid of someone you weren't interested in.
"If something ever happens to me," she once told Joanna, "everything you need to know is in the journal in the giant Kotex box at the back of the linen closet and you can have everything I own, even Kurt—especially Kurt." Joanna told her that if anything ever happened to her, she had a fake book, Darwin's Descent of Man, that opens and holds important papers. She also has a fake can of Campbell's tomato soup. The bottom screws off and someday when she makes lots of money, that's where she plans to keep some for security. "You can have that and the Dog House," Joanna told her.
Like Joanna, C.J. has done a lot of different things. She has cleaned houses and read palms and groomed dogs and now grooms the elderly—hair, hands, toes—at Pine Haven and leads them in a few activities and exercises. She rents the little apartment over the Dog House and in exchange for sometimes opening or closing, Joanna babysits her son, Kurt. Joanna's only rule as a landlord is no candles since she herself has had a couple of house fires as a result of purification rituals. "That would do it," C.J. said, and laughed when the rule was explained and adjusted her lip ring, which she always removes before going to work. "I'll come up with another way to purify."
Joanna wasn't there for her mother, but she was there for her dad and seeing him through those last days allowed her to let go herself. Being there may prove to be the greatest gift of her life. And of course none of that would have happened without Luke and Tammy.
In her work, Joanna has learned the importance of making peace. She sees it all the time, the stubborn child who won't come to the bedside and so the parent lasts far longer than should be asked of anyone. It is painful to watch, and for this reason she feels lucky to have journeyed her way back to this place. Her dad wanted her to promise to keep the the Dog House running and now she is doing her best, opening and closing and hiring responsible people to work the place, so she can devote herself to the volunteer hospice hours she gives over in Pine Haven's nursing wing.
"Make their exits as gentle and loving as possible," Luke had said. "Tell them how good it will be, even if you don't believe it yourself. You're southern, you know how to do that." And now family members greet and embrace her like she is one of them. Lung. Brain. Breast. Uterus. Pancreas. Bone. The families discuss and explain the symptoms and diagnoses for her as if they have never been heard of before, have never happened to anyone else, and she listens. Mistakes are made in the telling and she does not correct them. It is important to remain separate, to allow them to claim the disease, claim their grief. It is important not to get too attached or personally involved. Sometimes, when family members are naming the tests and the symptoms and prognosis, she allows herself to imagine her mother, getting the news and then driving home. Actively deciding what to do next but not calling her. But Joanna can go only so far with that or she'll undermine her purpose in the present. She is there, compassionate and listening, guiding the patients to talk and tell their stories if inclined but knowing when to step back into the shadows of the drapes or a closet door so family members get their time. She knows how to disappear.
Relatives show her all the old photos and letters; they tell her of accomplishments and regrets and then afterward, they drift away, her presence like something from an old dream, a reminder of their grief and loss. Sometimes they see her in the grocery or hardware store or when they drive up to the Dog House, and they can't help themselves, their eyes well up and words get choked. Like Pavlov's dogs, they react to her presence. It makes her think of poor Harley, the docile old orange cat at Pine Haven with enough poundage to warm even the coldest circulation-free feet, only now all of the residents are terrified of him because of the story in a recent news broadcast about a cat who chose to curl up beside whoever was most likely to die. The reports speculated how the cat knew. Did he sense something? Did he smell some chemical release of a body shutting down? His track record was convincing enough that the people who worked in that particular place paid attention to where he spent his time and the story told was convincing enough to ruin poor Harley's life there at Pine Haven. Once he was the most beloved and coveted creature in the place, and now he is greeted by shrieks and screams—slippers and plastic cups tossed his way. He is just a reminder of what is coming, a feline representation of Joanna herself, the one who appears bedside at the end and massages their cold darkening feet.
Now Lois Flowers's daughter, Kathryn, comes rushing into the room, a look of relief to find her mother still there. She is wearing her name tag from Bank of America where she is a teller. She nods at Joanna, no need for words. Joanna has already told her there isn't much time. Lois Flowers has not opened her eyes in eighteen hours, but her breathing does change when Kathryn's cheek is pressed against hers. "She's listening," Joanna says. "She knows you're here."
Before Lois stopped talking, she always asked Kathryn how school was and did she have homework. Joanna offers her seat and goes to stand by the window. It is important to be present and also allow people space and privacy. Outside the sun is shining and the roses are in full bloom. Mr. Stanley Stone and his son, Ned, are sitting on a bench talking. They were the first family Joanna worked with when she moved back. Mrs. Stone was dying and everyone in the family remained separate and distant. They lived up to the family name, though these days, the son, Ned, always says hello and acts like he wants to say more to her. Ned was several years ahead of her in school and then went to military school so she never really knew him. She's heard all the sad stories people think of when they see him, though, and now add his father's dementia on top of everything else. Mr. Stone walks the halls of Pine Haven, often insulting those who make eye contact. Now Ned Stone is leaning forward, his head in his hands while his dad stands in front of him shaking his fist.
"Mama? Mama, it's me," Kathryn says. "It's Kathryn."
Kathryn strokes the hair back from her mother's face and leans in close. She tells her mother how much she loves her and what a good mother she has been. She tells her about a new pair of shoes she just bought and how she got them for half price and what a beautiful June day it is. "Clang, clang, clang went the trolley," she sings, and then stops, closes her eyes, and presses her cheek against her mother's. She sits smoothing her mother's hair, shaking her head in disbelief that she is here in this moment. How can it be? her expression seems to ask. It's an ordinary Friday morning and Joanna cannot help but imagine what it would have been like if she had had the chance to be with her own mother, to lean in close and whisper good-bye, and in that moment there is a change in the air, and in that moment, they all come back to her, all the last days and last words and last breaths. Kathryn whispers the words, What'll I do—when—you ... and then it is time; without a word, everything changes and they know that it is time.
Notes about: Lois Elizabeth Malcolm Flowers
Born: July 14, 1929 Died: Friday, June 7, 2010, at approximately 10:35 a.m. Pine Haven Retirement Facility Fulton, North Carolina
It was a warm sunny day, drapes fully opened to let all the light in, just as Lois Flowers always requested. The room was comfortable; somehow in spite of all the stark nursing apparatus, the room was as warm and welcoming as Lois herself. On the very first day, she invited me in and told me how lovely it was to have me there. Not the ideal situation, she said, but still lovely to see you. She said she had not known my parents well but sure did like those hot dogs my dad made, especially the Chihuahua because whoever heard of putting hot salsa on a plain old hot dog? Lois Flowers loved music and she loved fashion. She had a subscription to Vogue that had never lapsed in over forty years. "You could never get away with outfits like that here in Fulton," she said. "But it is important to know what folks are wearing elsewhere." She loved turquoise and the way people complimented her when she wore it. "I'm a winter," she liked to say, and referred often to a folder labeled "Personal Color Harmony" and all the little color samples within. She never went shopping for clothes or lipstick without it. Her favorite holiday was Halloween because she loved to see children having so much fun, but mainly because she liked a good excuse to wear orange even though her chart said that winters do not wear orange well. She decided that even if she looked horrid, so what? It was Halloween, but, she said, I looked quite striking in an orange alpaca sweater and black gabardine slacks. It's the one time the chart got it wrong. She still had the orange sweater and insisted that I take it and promise to wear it every October 31. She gave her daughter, Kathryn, the newer Halloween sweater, a honey-colored cashmere with black cat and witch hat buttons. Kathryn is a true autumn and that sweater is perfect for her, she said. You can see why I want everything perfect for her. She suggested I rethink the way I wear my hair and then put a hand to her mouth and apologized for such a rude remark. "This is all new," she told me. "This way I say things I don't mean to say," and I was able to assure her that I completely understood and that I am reconsidering what to do with my hair. She smiled and blew me a kiss. She said, how about some golden highlights and something layered to give body?
She had matchbooks from every nice restaurant she had ever gone to. Her favorites were Tavern on the Green and Windows on the World. She said she loved eating in New York City. She said her husband teased her that all it took for her to love a restaurant was for it to be in New York City and have lots of windows and a preposition in the name. She told Kathryn she needed to get back there, that they should take a trip and see a show. When told that both restaurants were gone, she held a firm position that she still needed to go there. "And so do you!" she said, always pulling me into the conversation. "And if there's not a young man in your life" (she asked me often if I had met anyone interesting), she said that I should just go alone. "Women do that now," she said. "A woman can go wherever she wants right by herself."
Once, while her husband and Kathryn were out at the County Fair, Lois Flowers burned her Maidenform bra in a hibachi in their backyard. When her husband asked what's that smell? she said she had no earthly idea. She said it made her feel connected to something big and important, that she stood there in the backyard and pretended she was at a rally in New York City. She never told him what she had done, even when she saw him studying the ashes and what looked like a scrap of nylon. She had never even told anyone about it until that day; she said, I have always felt liberated.
Her last words were to Kathryn, spoken two days before she died. "Honey, do you have homework?" She had asked that question hundreds of times over the years and if Kathryn did not have homework, the two of them went shopping. Lois Flowers loved her daughter and she loved to shop. Kathryn said that all of their important conversations took place during those little shopping trips. What to expect when you start your period. Why you got that bad grade. Why a sassy mouth is not a good thing. How your reputation is your most prized possession. Why you should always do your best. Why good hygiene is a must. What boys do and do not have good sense about or control over. These topics were often whispered over the lunch counter at Wood's Dimestore where Kathryn got a cherry Coke or a milkshake and Lois got a cup of black coffee, her red lipstick staining the fat lip of the heavy white mug. Sometimes they ate pie or got a hot dog and always they were flanked with a bag or two of things they had found to buy over at Belk or the Fashion Bar or Smart Shop. "I can't wait to get home and see what all we got," Lois would say many times, and Kathryn said that once home, her mother kept the excitement going for many more hours with a fashion show and then talk of all the places Kathryn would go to wear the new things and all the wonderful things that would happen as a result. "Her predictions were not often right," Kathryn said. "But she was sincere."
Excerpted from Life After Life by JILL McCORKLE. Copyright © 2013 by Jill McCorkle. Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted April 20, 2013
I can't tell you why I didn't love this book, because that would ruin it for you. I can only say that if it were a TV series, everybody would want to watch the second episode, would maybe even put it on their calendars, so they'd be sure not to miss it. Jill McCorkle is an excellent writer. Her characters seem so real, you almost forget that they aren't. The detail that I can't tell you about will not keep me from reading her other books and short stories, and so I do recommend them to you.
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Posted April 21, 2013
I was enjoying book so much and I turned the page and it was over with SO many unanswered questions, I couldn't believe it. Is there going to be a sequel, what happened? A very disappointing ending. In fact this is the first time I've posted any rating on any book, I was that upset.
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Posted July 12, 2013
This book has an outstanding premise--that the dying want to be remembered and how we view individuals who are facing the end of their lives. Portions are absolutely riveting. Sadly the author seems to run out of energy for her topic half way through the text and can't quite recover. The ending was disappointing.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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Posted April 20, 2013
I enjoyed this book BUT....what happened to the doctor? The marriage of Ben & Kendra? Abby? Good premise but to me an unfinished book.
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Posted April 13, 2013
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