A decade and a half after her last novel (1997's Tending to Virginia), Jill McCorkle is back with Life After Life, set in the Pine Haven Retirement Community of Fulton, N.C., described by Rachel, the lone Jewish resident, as, the "land of lard, Jesus, sugared-up tea and enough meshuggeners to fill Fenway Park." The retirement home is a microcosm not just of Fulton, but of the world at large.
McCorkle gives voice to multiple narrators, including Pine Haven residents, staff, volunteers, relatives--anyone with a piece of a story to tell. The central storyteller, though, is Joanna, a volunteer who stays with people when they are breathing their last. She befriends C.J., the young tattooed and pierced cosmetician who does hair and nails for the residents. C.J. has a son, whose father is unknown to anyone except C.J. (and the father), which will lead to a surprising and slightly over-the-top twist at the end of the novel.
A feckless magician named Ben lives nearby with his shrewish wife, Kendra, and their largely neglected daughter, Abby, who hates them both with a deep purple passion. Abby, nearly 13, spends far too much time at Pine Haven, feeling more at home with its residents than with kids her age. Her special friend is Sadie, a former schoolteacher who believes the best of everyone and has started a business of sorts within the retirement home called Exposure. It isn't clear whether or not any money changes hands, but Sadie creates picture collages of residents visiting exotic places--making them feel that they are there.
Appearance and disappearance are significant themes throughout Life After Life. The residents suddenly appear in faraway places thanks to Sadie's collages; Ben is making a "disappearing" chamber for a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't trick at Abby's birthday party. Another character, Stanley, has here-again, gone-again dementia, which turns out to have an interesting life of its own. And, of course, part of life in a retirement community is that residents disappear--permanently.
It's a treat to have another Jill McCorkle novel to enjoy. Her characters and setting, the humor and poignancy with which she writes, have been absent far too long. --Valerie Ryan
Shelf Talker: A North Carolina retirement home sets the stage for several interesting characters in McCorkle's first novel (following three short story collections) in more than a decade.