Alice McDermott’s After This takes readers on a compelling journey through several decades with a young couple as they meet, marry, and raise a family. The story begins with Mary Rose, a thirty-something single woman who wonders if she will ever wed. World War II has marred the lives of many of the men of her generation, much as the Vietnam War will affect the lives of her children. Although McDermott is careful to explain small details, the major events in characters’ lives, such as how Mary Rose meets John Keane, are not explained. Mary and John Keane are married by the end of the second chapter, and the rest of the novel explores the quiet suburban lives of the Irish-Catholic family this couple will produce.
The Keanes raise four children, two girls and two boys, who take divergent paths that sometimes please their parents but often do not. One child dies in the war in Vietnam; another becomes pregnant while still in high school. Readers catch glimpses of Mary’s first pregnancy, the arrival of the couple’s fourth child, a trip to the New York World Fair, plans to build a new community church, and several incidents at school—each reported in a soft voice by a third-person narrator who passes no judgment or evaluation.
McDermott is often characterized as a teller of Irish-Catholic stories. She has claimed that although she does not want to be labeled, it is the Irish-Catholic culture and way of life that she knows best. In After This, as in many of McDermott’s stories, she describes the seemingly mundane, day-to-day events of middle-class people—births and deaths, the fixing of meals, the ebb and flow of love, and the development of relationships inside the family and with friends. The featured characters are Irish Catholics, and their involvement with the Catholic Church is a constant backdrop. The father helps to plan the renovation of the new church building. The children attend Catholic schools taught by nuns and go to church to confess their sins.
Family life ties this novel together. Readers experience the changes that the Keane family goes through as the mother and father marry, have children, and then drift through their separate and shared paths. As their children mature, the parents struggle to keep the family together despite the children’s need to pull away. One by one, the children rebel against their constraints and find ways to both irritate their parents and make their hearts ache with pride. It is through the theme of family life that secondary themes such as love, death, loss, tension, frustration, and disagreement are developed.