After This By Alice McDermott
The novel begins with Mary Rose leaving church on a blustery day in New York City. It is just after World War II and Mary Rose has accepted that her life is one of keeping house for her father and her brother, and working as a typist during the day. A date with a friend of her brother's does make her wonder if it is not too late to marry. But it is not until she meets a stranger in the diner where she lunches that she feels an instant attraction and knows she will be his wife. Babies follow quickly and there becomes a family of four children, Jacob, Michael, Anne and finally Clare, with mother Mary and husband John - the Keane family. The Keanes live on Long Island in the perfect suburbs of the 1950s; Jack works and Mary stays at home to look after the family. Mary's friend from her working days, Pauline, has become an honourary aunt to the children and is intimately involved in their lives. We all had them in those days, some of us still do, the aunts and uncles who were family friends, usually childless, who took on the children as their own flesh and blood. This is a novel where the theme of flesh and blood runs strongly.
One evening their father, breaking up a bedtime tussle between Jacob and Michael says, "Flesh and blood. Who do you think you'll have on your side when your mother and I are gone? Who do you think you'll be able to turn to when you're as old as I am and there's something you need - a buck or two, a piece of advice, maybe just someone you can ask, 'Remember when?, Your friends? Your Little League team. They'll be scattered to the four winds. They'll have forgotten your name…Your family. Your flesh and blood that's who you'll have. Your two sisters. Each other. That's who you'll have."
This is early on in the life of this family. This typical American family - my generation - the children born in the 1950s - growing up through the cold war, old enough to fight in Vietnam - the sexual revolution. They live in the same neighbourhood all of these years.
The Keanes are Irish Catholic, their closest neighbour Italian Catholic. Mr. Perschetti delivered the last baby when Mary Keane went into labour at home and the baby came too quickly to get to the hospital.
The two families, with children the same ages are close. It is Tony Perschetti who goes to Vietnam first, and comes back so damaged. Mr. Perschetti says to Mr. Keane "Shoot him in the foot. Break his legs before you let him go", as Jacob Keane reaches the age to be drafted.
Jacob's teacher, at the Catholic school the children all attend, also thinks of Jacob and Vietnam, and the other boys who had gone from the school. "It was chance plain and simple. Kids born lucky or kids who never got a break. It was fate perhaps, although she supposed that God came into it somewhere."
During Jacob's time in Viet Nam his mother decides she will think only of the times of joy in her life, "the morning in the hospital when the infant Jacob was placed in her arms, the thrill and disbelief of finding herself a mother". "But one moment nudges the other out of the way. It was something to regret. It was something to be grateful for."
The joys that come with parenthood - and the worry and sometimes grief.
Michael, meanwhile, finishes high school and goes off to college, just enough younger and less serious than Jacob, to be the one to experience the drinking, the drugs, the sex. Annie is still in high school, deceiving her parents and experiencing things they would never dream of, and Clare still a child.
Alice McDermott is an accomplished author, she manages to be sensitive to the emotions of her characters and to make them very real to readers. She tells the story in such a way that we do not always know what is to come. There is a death but it is both expected and a surprise when it is revealed. The days of grief are superbly written, the love and the loss and the having to continue to live. The desire to pretend it never happened, to think of what life would have been like if the loved one had not died. It is about family and the joys and sorrows of our lives.