‘Life After Life’: Love is the real answer

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 7, 2013

“Life after Life,” by Jill McCorkle. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2013. 344 pp. $24.95. Available as ebook.

“Life after Life,” Jill McCorkle’s first novel in 17 years, is a highly readable, thoroughly engaging novel that immerses the reader in the confines of Pine Haven, a retirement community in Fulton, N.C.
It’s a place where people go to live, and when living becomes hard, they find care, and when the end comes, they have people like Joanna. Joanna carries the thread that sews up the raveled sleeve of care for Pine Haven residents. A Hospice volunteer, she has returned to her hometown after a life of poor choices and bad circumstances.
Death brought her home. Rescued from a fumbled suicide attempt by a dog and its man, she marries Luke and lets him bring her back to life while he is dying. Luke Wishart is gay, and he and his partner need Joanna as a vehicle to carry Luke’s legacy, legally, and pass it to David. She heals so much during her care for Luke. She learns it is time to stop running, to be who she really is and damn the consequences. She has bridges to rebuild before it’s too late.
So she goes to little Fulton, home of a big brown river and not far from the ocean, to reunite with her father, owner of the Dog House, a popular hot dog stand. When her mother died, Joanna was too late. Their relationship had been distant and strained for years. She and her father make peace; he gives her the Dog House, and Joanna finds Pine Haven and the chance to follow through on her promise to Luke.
She has a gift for sitting with the dying, for listening to them, looking at their photos, sharing their memories. Joanna helps them die. When Martha Stone lingers, Joanna tells retired lawyer Stanley Stone to tell Martha it’s OK to go. And she does, peacefully.
Joanna is also a friend to the living, taking in a tattooed, pierced young woman with too much makeup and a new baby. C.J. — named Carolina Jessamine — has already lost her drug-addicted mother and never knew her father. C.J. does hair and manicures and pedicures at Pine Haven. She’s determined to make a life for herself and her son, Kurt. She lives over the Dog House and looks to Joanna almost as a mother — this time, one she can trust.
McCorkle introduces readers to some of the residents of Pine Haven in separate chapters, beautifully capturing their personalities, quirks, states of dementia and secret thoughts. Any one of them could be waiting for you to come visit.
Luke tells Joanna she must write a page about each person who dies in her care. “Luke said 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.”
Throughout the book, McCorkle shares Joanna’s notebook entries, followed by the last thoughts of the dying, in their own words. Each chapter focuses on a resident — and don’t worry — not all of them die. As the book continues, you’ll see how everyone is connected.
Those residents have some tales. Sadie is everyone’s favorite, always sunny and full of positive thoughts, she often diffuses tension among the other residents with a simple comment. Sadie taught third grade for 40 years, and believes we are who we will be at age 8. Simple as that. Sadie has a business, using photos to put people in places they should have been or wanted to be. Some days there’s quite a line at her door for her scissors and glue magic — in the days before digital — and everyone leaves happy, believing whatever they want.
Sadie’s most frequent visitor is Abby, the 12-year-old from the other side of the cemetery. Through an arbor on one side of Pine Haven is a convenient cemetery, home to more activity involving the living than the dead. Abby’s parents fight constantly. Her mother, Kendra, is a status-seeking witch by another name. Her father is a dreamer and former teen magician who has never grown up. Kendra will be the character you will hate, along with her lover, but Abby is a child in desperate straits.
Toby is also a retired teacher, full of vim and vigor and with strong opinions and an addiction to nicotine. She can make anyone laugh, except maybe for Marge, widow of a judge. Marge is so precise and unyielding that she usually irritates people or starts an argument. Her prize possession is a scrapbook of all the cases her husband judged, a true crime legacy of horrors. Toby has a secret — not shocking now — that she keeps, though most everyone has figured it out. Marge just won’t let it go.
Stanley Stone acts like he’s crazy with dementia, making inappropriate comments, sexual jokes, becoming a wrestling fanatic, playing the same Herb Alpert album again and again. He’s been a successful lawyer, and after his wife dies, he comes to Pine Haven to avoid being with his unsuccessful, sad-sack son, Ned, who’s had a failed marriage and business. Stanley is crazy like a fox, though, and McCorkle makes him into a character full of conflict and hope.
Rachel Silverman is the outlander. A tough lawyer from Boston, she earned the nickname, The Shark. Why she’s here is puzzling. She tells them her husband spent his childhood there — but not one of them, all natives, recognizes his name. Rachel is smart and observant, does not suffer fools, and has a habit of disappearing every day.
She’s here because she had a sometime lover many years ago, Joe, who was from Fulton. He woke her desires, long since ignored for career, not kindled by her faithful, older husband. Their city-to-city affair makes her heart fly. When her husband, Art, dies, she is childless and has no plans except to see the place where Joe grew up, the wonderful little town he told her about every time they were together.
McCorkle lets the true humor of old age shine through. Getting older, facing death does not mean an end to laughter or to love or to hope. Poignant and thoughtful, this novel follows the circle of life from the other end.
One death is particularly upsetting, though. It kills hope for one character who deserved more — is it true to the story? Hard to say. There’s a great deal wrong in this world and some people seem to be doomed to be victims. This end offers Joanna another beginning, fulfilling a longing she has set aside.
So much happens so fast, just like life, that when you finish the book and realize it has taken place over perhaps a few weeks, you’ll feel that you’ve always been part of it, that these are people you know just as well as McCorkle does.
Overall, the feeling — the message, if you will — is that there is life in dying, that love is what builds the bridges and makes living and dying into natural events that should be celebrated throughout.
McCorkle, in an interview last week with D.G. Martin on “North Carolina Bookwatch,” said she believes the thing that matters above all else is love — that is the secret of life. She quotes Thornton Wilder, who felt much the same way and wrote the play “Our Town” to express it, just before the novel begins: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Do not confuse McCorkle’s book with one by the same title, “Life After Life,” by Kate Atkinson, which was released almost simultaneously.