After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell: book review

After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell

Overview: Alice falls into a coma in the first few chapters of the book, but that's only the beginning of her story. Tracing many decades and threads of lives, After You'd Gone probes the family secrets and intimate realities of Alice and her family. The book jumps around to reveal her parents as young adults, the reality of her grandmother's marriage, Alice's childhood, and her twenties falling in love with a man, always fearing a tragedy. While we get to know Alice's life better than she does, there's the looming question of whether our protagonist will wake up to continue her story. Overall: 4

Characters: 4 There's a pretty oil painting on the library copy that I read, and I feel like that accurately represents how these characters are drawn. Alice and her family members are revealed slowly, seeming fuzzy and then gaining a certain clarity if you're quiet and patient enough. Alice, more than having a strong personality, is taken on a difficult ride through the book weathering each storm with a steely resolve. We get to see Alice happy, but those moments are few and far between. More than expanding on herself and probing her inner reality, Alice mostly endures whatever is thrown at her next. 

There's a great reward in the large cast here as well. Each of Alice's family members gain a strong but subtle nuance over time that make them feel alive and uniquely sentient. Her father is both soft and firm. Her mother is an outcast in their Scotland community, and her massive secret doesn't help that. Her sisters stayed close to home and followed a different path than Alice, and her grandmother stands as Alice's rock through her tough childhood. Alice also has her best friend from college and her boyfriend, who faces tough family dilemmas in balancing his family and his love. John, Alice's partner, feels remarkably solid from his first appearance. While it sometimes feels like everyone is painted in shades of blue and gray, there is a great deal of talent in the composition. 

Plot: 4 This can be a hard book to follow at times, and my main piece of advice is to just let it wash over you like an ocean wave instead of trying to follow some kind of linear path with it. I was thoroughly puzzled by the first few time and character jumps, but once you surrender to the novel and trust that O'Farrell knows what she's doing, the book really opens up. The only trick with the style of the book, where each chapter feels like a vignette of its own and that don't immediately link to the broader story, is that its easy to lose a sense of urgency. This doesn't create the best momentum, but it did make it easy to read this book in the evenings while reading other books during the day. The plot is so scattered and blurry that it creates more of a built-up feeling in your chest as the payoff, meaning that you don't need to be able to remember all the details to be rewarded for reading. 

Writing: 4 I can see why O'Farrell is such a lauded writer. I picked this one up because I was curious about what all the hype was about with her writing, but I'm not a big historical fiction fan, so I didn't want to start with Hamnet. O'Farrell has a gorgeous prose style and is good at conveying emotion in the mundane. Reflecting back on it, this book feels like it speaks a similar language to The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor. This was another book I was torn about the entire time I was reading it, but ultimately, I'm not sure if I'm a fan of The Late Americans whereas I think I've settled on After You'd Gone as being successful in what it aims to do even if there are some rocky moments to get there. 

One funny note about this book is that it was first published in 2000! I had no clue how long ago O'Farrell had written this one when I picked it up, so I spent the whole book wondering what year this book was meant to be in and was charmed by the retro aspects like communication being tethered to the home phone. It felt nineties but in an unspecified way that you don't see in near-term historical fiction. Turns out that's because this was written as a contemporary novel. Whoops. I actually really enjoyed wandering around in this nineties world, though, and seeing how vastly similar and wildly different it was to today. I had a similar experience watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and now I want to get in a Time Machine to be an adult around the year I was born.

Also, my only note on the ending is that it's extremely ambiguous. I think that O'Farrell heavily hints at what is happening, but she ultimately cuts the camera before this hunch can be confirmed, so I like that the reader has the chance to choose the fork in the road that makes them feel most satisfied with the book.

More on Reading, Writing, and Me:

The Late Americans review

Green Dot review

March 2024 Reading Round Up

Anita de Monte Laughs Last review


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