Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life

Life After Life Jill McCorkleThis summer has been so hellish that I’ve declared August the Month of the Beach Book.

If only I could go to the beach for a month. I love the Eastern Shore and the boardwalk at Ocean City, but I wouldn’t necessarily even leave the cottage.  I would lounge around drinking iced tea and reading beach books.

What is a beach book? you may ask.

Anything you feel like reading is a beach book.

“I PREFER BEACH BOOKS” is the  t-shirt I am planning to wear.

I just finished Jill McCorkle’s stunning novel, Life After Life, a literary novel so engrossing it can double as a beach book.  This gorgeously-written novel by one of our best Southern writers has an ensemble cast of smart, eccentric, fascinating characters who live in or work at  Pine Haven Retirement Facility in Fulton, North Carolina.

McCorkle knows the end of life is important.  She says she began writing the book after her father died 20 years ago.

The exquisite prose reflects her attentiveness to detail.  This multi-layered novel starts and ends with Joanna, a hospice volunteer whose notebook entries about each patient frame the chapters.  Her notes are followed by lyrical vignettes from the point-of-view of the dead.

Joanna is not just a note-taker; she is also one of the main characters.

She is not afraid to tell the relatives they must tell their loved ones it is all right to let go.

McCorkle’s language is precise, lyrical, and quietly breathtaking.  Take the beginning:

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 done just right.  She had her color chart done in 1981 and kept the little swatches like paint chips in the zippered lining of her purse.  She told Joanna having her colors done was one of the best investments of her life.  “I’m a winter,” she said.  “It’s why turquoise looks so good on me.

Joanna gets to know Lois’s daughter Katherine, and loves the fact that significant moments in the mother-daughter relationship occurred while shopping or over cherry cokes at the dimestore.  (So real, isn’t it?  Here in the Midwest as well as the South.)

Life After LIfe McCorkle paperbackJoanna has been married three times and had her heart broken.  In New Hampshire, where she attempted suicide, Luke, an AIDS patient, turned her life around by convincing her to be a hospice volunteer. She recently returned to her hometown, Fulton where rumor says she is wild and has been married seven times.

My favorite character is Sadie Randolph, a retired third-grade teacher who lives in the assisted living facility at Pine Haven.  She has started a creative business in her room: she cuts and pastes photos of fellow residents on backgrounds and  landscapes they wish they had visited.  Sadie “has always seen the sunnier side of life, and she’s not sure why that is, just that it is.”  She has taught generations of students, including Joanna, and tried to  inspire them with stories about how life should be.  We understand her frustration as standards changed in the classroom.  “She got tired of all the younger teachers coming through and saying how old-fashioned she was because she still believed in dictionaries and manners.”

Other Pine Haven residents include Rachel, a lawyer from Massachusetts who moved to Fulton because her most meaningful relationship was an affair in the ’70s with Joe, who lived and died here.  Stanley, also a retired lawyer, pretends to have dementia so he can avoid his son, a gym teacher who has done jail time for drunken driving.  Toby, a high school teacher who loved the classics but refused to put up with vampire novels, can quote Shakespeare and Melville but also can also make people laugh and find the good in Marge, a mean-spirited Bible-thumping socialite.

There are also a few young characters: Abby, a 12-year-od who spends hours at Pine Haven because her parents fight constantly and Sadie is the ideal parent figure; and C.J., the single mother who does hair and nails at Pine Haven, and who hopes for a brighter future for her son.

McCorkle is an expert storyteller, and captures the atmosphere of a good (and they are not all good) assisted living facility and retirement community.  She describes the early meals and the gossip, the friendships and rivalries.  There are people who grew up together, and then the Fulton newcomers, who came for the retirement home.

I even like the Readers’ Guide, which has a fascinating interview with McCorkle.

In the Author’s Note, McCorkle says,

I have always loved composite pieces, each character introduced like an instrument, their voices blending until there is a communal symphony of a particular place.  I greatly admire the novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter for this reason, and for the way McCullers managed to highlight every walk of society and longing.  In the same way, I have long been inspired by Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, especially its use of time and the way it five voice to the dead.  That’s all there is.