Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Jill McCorkle's novel, though different in so many ways, also follows the lives she describes not in an unbroken chronological way but through a series of perspectives, moving back and forth through time.
Several years ago, I had the good fortune to attend the North Carolina Book Festival in Chapel Hill during which McCorkle, fellow NC author Lee Smith and singer-songwriters Marshall Chapman and Matreca Berg gave a four woman reader's theatre version of their musical, Good Old Girls. The show presents vignettes from the point of view of a variety of women of all ages. (I recall one song: "Don't let me get pregnant. I just came to dance.") My favorite part, though, presented the experience of a woman who found herself in the nursing home, which she calls "this school for old people," right after her husband's death. It was, in turns, hilarious and heart-breaking.
This novel Life After Life not only shares the setting--a facility ranging from hospice care to assisted living and cabins for more independent seniors. She opens with Joanna, a woman who has returned to her hometown Fulton, NC, after many years away, taking a job sitting with people as they near death. While rumors abound that she has been through serial marriages, she's actually been married three times--once to a man her parents thought perfect for her, once to a grieving widower who needs her help with his children in the year after his death--until he falls in love with someone else, and a man dying of AIDS she meets after his dog rescues her from a suicide attempt. That marriage, one of convenience on an interesting number of levels, gives her live new purpose.
As she records the last days of her patience, McCorkle shares their lives as well--the town's long-time third grade teacher, a holier-than-thou busybody, a former literature teacher, and two of the most interesting residents--a Boston woman in good health who decided after her husband died to move to the town where her former lover had live and died and a man feigning Alzheimer's so his son won't insist on keeping him at home and moving in with him.
In addition to the elderly residents, McCorkle's cast of characters includes a young girl living right across the cemetery from the facility, escaping her parents' fighting by spending time with Sadie, the former school teacher, and a single mother--tattooed and pierced--who does the residents' hair and nails and hides her own secrets.
Throughout the novel, McCorkle weaves the stories together, balancing the light, humorous sections with tender and even dark ones. The book makes good on the promise implied in her earlier vignette, convincingly presenting the life still left to live in those final years.