3 out of 4 stars
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After They Go follows a year in the life of the Aaldenbergs, a family whose roots run deep in a small tourist town near Boston. Told from the third-person perspectives of the women in the family, author J. Mercer crafts a heartwarming portrait of love, sacrifice, growing up, and finding oneself.
Gwen, the golden child, has just taken over the family business, a store that generations of Aaldenbergs have kept afloat through the years. This gives her younger sister, Betta, the respite she’s certainly earned after taking care of their dying grandfather. Esmerelda, the youngest, has grand designs for herself as she starts high school. All is well—or so their mother, Wanda, would like to believe. The reality, however, is far from this rosy picture. Gwen is desperate to escape to the city, but responsibility, tradition, and the store’s looming bankruptcy keep her shackled to the town. Betta doesn’t want to rest; she wants to manage the store, something she feels that Gwen has—yet again—taken away from her. Ez’s plan is to be Gwen, and in her misguided quest for acceptance and popularity, she’s starting to lose her own identity. Through it all, Wanda is consumed by her own issues, falling into a depression that renders her deaf and blind to the needs of her children. As the resentment builds up between parent and child, sisters, spouses, and lovers, will the Aaldenbergs fall apart? Or will they come through as a family?
It’s impossible not to be drawn to the characters in this family drama, because whoever you are, it’s easy to find someone here that is just so you. For instance, like Gwen, I’ve found myself giving up the “wants” in my life in favor of the “shoulds.” I’ve felt the same sense of futility and insignificance that Betta had to grapple with. I can understand Ez’s fixation about being liked, for isn’t it something that you can’t really outgrow? I know something of hopelessness as well, so Wanda’s struggle could just as well be my own.
Mercer’s prose is solid, evoking a strong sense of character and place that adds intensity and texture to the narrative. The other personalities that inhabit the pages—the long-suffering boyfriend, the caring neighbor, even the stereotypical mean girl at Ez’s high school—all feel distinct and oh so real. The characterizations are subtle, but the internal turmoil these people undergo was very palpable. I especially find the portrayal of mental health issues like obsessive-compulsive tendencies and depression striking, for we aren’t directly told that the characters have these conditions, but we are shown how these manifest in their lives.
The setting is vividly described as well. The Aaldenbergs’ hometown feels as quaint as you’d expect a small town to be, and the various landmarks—even a dilapidated house that changes Betta’s life—left a lasting impression on my mind.
While Mercer excels in fleshing out relatable characters and depicting the dynamics of their relationships, the interpersonal conflicts propelling the plot felt so overdrawn at some points, as most of them could have been resolved by a simple conversation. While we could argue that this mirrors reality, it still impacted the story’s pacing. There were also a few typographical errors in the text, usually involving spelling or the wrong use of words (e.g., “dependant” instead of “dependent” or “complimentary” instead of “complementary”). These two factors prevent me from giving the book the full score; otherwise, I wouldn’t have hesitated to rate it 4 stars.
I rate After They Go 3 out of 4 stars for its relatable cast of characters, the vivid depiction of small town life, and the sensitive handling of mental health issues. Gwen’s and Betta’s storylines will appeal to fans of women’s fiction, while Ez’s narrative will satisfy those looking for a coming-of-age story. Overall, readers who enjoy family sagas will find After They Go an engaging read.
After They Go
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