Monday, March 14, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'After You'

The Book: After You: A Novel

The Author: Julie Buxbaum

How I Found It: I saw it in a bookstore one day and decided to pick it up sometime after I'd read The Secret Garden, the book part of the plot hinges on. Now that I've read it, I gave it a shot (thanks, inter-library loan!).

The Review: Ellie Lerner is in London, picking up the pieces after another family's tragedy. Her best friend, Lucy, was murdered only a few days before by a drug addict who wanted her jewelry, and all of it happened in front of Lucy's eight-year-old daughter, Sophie. Ellie, as godmother, flies straight over to help Greg, Lucy's husband, and a traumatized Sophie.

Sophie has stopped speaking, and Ellie is desperate to help her, turning to their mutual love of reading as a solution--they will read The Secret Garden together, a book that helped Ellie cope after a family tragedy years before. Ellie makes the decision to stay in London longer than she expected, both to look after Greg and Sophie and to try and make sense of her failing marriage, still reeling from a loss that took place two years before.

I've been lucky, thus far, to find "chick lit" that actually has surprising emotional depth. I don't like the term "chick lit" for precisely this reason. Emily Giffin has wrote some really intricate explorations of friendship and infidelity, Jennifer Weiner wrote about body image, Jodi Picoult wrote about family, and now I've found Julie Buxbaum's sad but hopeful book on grieving and moving on.

Many passages struck me as true to life, the type of thing I can remember thinking during similar experiences I've had. A particular favorite of mine, whose page number I can't recall: "Certainly she can’t be lost if there is still the matted diploma from the Columbia School of Journalism on her wall, a pair of her favorite flip-flops, solid pink, soles worn thin, still on the floor, a pile of research for an article still unwritten. Too many stills—an identity frozen by things—for the object they represent to be gone." There's so much in this book that I feel would ring true with anyone who has experienced a loss like Ellie's, but the book isn't just about loss. It also delves into a marriage that's falling apart, into how Greg and Sophie deal with their tragedy, into the lives of Ellie's slightly insane parents, and into the things Ellie is now learning about Lucy, things she wishes she never heard of.

Most reviews I've seen have found Ellie an unsympathetic character, mostly because of her not-entirely-selfless motivation for taking care of Sophie, but I felt that I could understand her pretty well. The passages dealing with her and her husband's personal tragedy were definitely plausible, at least to me. Her concern for Sophie was well-done, as were their interactions. Sophie is a bit too precocious at times, but it's not done to be precious or cute; it's actually touchingly used to show how much of an outcast Sophie is to her classmates. I didn't have it as bad as Sophie did as a kid, but I can certainly relate to being the girl on the playground who'd rather read than play. Greg, the widower, gets a few good scenes where we get to see the scope of his grief, even if he, like Ellie, is struggling to believe that Lucy wasn't always honest. The other characters don't get as much screentime, but their plots are at least entertaining--Ellie's brother Mikey gets a fun, sweet romance with Sophie's teacher, and Ellie's parents are trying yet again to reconcile.

I was expecting to get a book filled with flashbacks to Lucy, to her and Ellie's friendship, but I was surprised to get a pretty clear picture of their friendship without them. We get a picture of Lucy mainly through Ellie's thoughts about her, and I can only remember one or two flashbacks offhand. Buxbaum was able to craft our perception of Lucy through snippets of memories triggered for Ellie, and I was pleased by how well that worked. We get the same sense of Lucy that Ellie did--maybe we don't know her as well as we thought, but we still love her and feel sorry that she's gone.

I'll admit that certain plot devices were very predictable, and maybe in the end it doesn't have all that much that makes it stand out from any other book in the genre. All things considered, though, it gives a very clear, surprisingly hopeful look at a handful of people coping with tragedy, with some very true observations about the nature of grief and friendship. Recommended to anyone with an interest in well-written "chick lit."

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