Julia Alvarez & Brit Bennet

It’s been a bit of a challenge to get absorbed in a novel these days. The news is too loud and devastating. It takes a great storytellerand a compelling tale to get my interest and keep it.  The two novels below held my interest and gave me a necessary break from the tragic news cycle.

I absolutely adored Julia Alavarez’s new book Afterlife. In her first book for adults in 15 years, Alvarez (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies) tells the story of the recently widowed Antonia Vega, a Dominican-American like Alvarez herself. 

Retired from her career as a college professor and novelist, Vega is ready to settle happily into retirement with her husband when he’s killed by a sudden aneurysm. She is forced to enter into the “disorienting transition of old age” on her own. Here she is on the grief of widowhood: “The landscape of grief is not very inviting. Visitors don’t want to linger.” 

She also becomes involved, somewhat against her will, with an undocumented Mexican man who’s doing farm work for her Vermont neighbor, Mario, when he enlists her to help bring his fiancé to Vermont. As an immigrant herself Antonia has always been something of a “reluctant activist” and her personal involvement with Mario tests her and challenges some of her assumptions.

If you have sisters, you’ll love this novel as Alvarez spends lots of time on Vega’s relationship with her three sisters, all strong individuals with distinct points of view who don’t hesitate to mix it up and call each other out, often with hilarious irreverence, at every opportunity.  The deep love at the root of their relationship is evident as is their ability to push each other’s buttons like crazy.

This is not a simple novel.  Alvarez wrestles with complex moral decisions and the obligations and responsibilities of privilege. Just because Antonia is Latina, Alvarez tells us. “she’s not necessarily Mother Teresa.”

I was also taken with Brit Bennet’s new novel The Vanishing Half.  The twin sisters at the heart of the novel are extremely light-skinned blacks who live in a Louisiana town defined by its light-skinned population. 

The girls run away to New Orleans to escape the conventions of their small, stifling town, and their lives take very different paths.  One suffers marriage to an abusive man and returns home with her very dark-skinned child in tow.  The other disappears from her family entirely to pass as a white woman.

This is a compulsively readable book.  You can’t wait to find out what happens. Bennett, who also wrote The Mothers, has superb control of her material and keeps things humming along,

But there’s also real depth here.  Through her main characters and their off-spring, Bennett explores issues of race, gender, and identity.  How are we shaped by our past?  To what extent can we put it behind us?  And how far can we bend the definition of family? 

Despite the respite I found in both books, we can’t really keep the world at bay. Alvarez’s treatment of the lives of undocumented people in this country and Bennett’s exploration of skin color bring in the world outside. More and more we can’t, nor should we want to, shut it out.