Setting

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The main setting for After This is New York City and Long Island, although those physical locales do not have much affect on the story. Readers are vaguely aware of where the characters live, but the novel’s events could take place in any big city or in any suburb. What...

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The main setting for After This is New York City and Long Island, although those physical locales do not have much affect on the story. Readers are vaguely aware of where the characters live, but the novel’s events could take place in any big city or in any suburb.

What plays a bigger role is the book’s general time period, which extends between World War II and the Vietnam War. The wars profoundly affect every character directly or indirectly. The soldiers who come home are unable to readjust to normal life, and the soldiers who do not make it home leave irreparable holes in the families they have left behind. The time period’s moral and social conventions of (particularly those of the 1950s and 1960s) also strongly influence the characters. For example, a woman in her thirties, it is implied, should be married, and a husband should be responsible for bringing home money.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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1. How would you describe the relationship between Mary Keane and Pauline? What is Mary’s attraction to Pauline? Why does Pauline like to be around Mary? How are the two women alike? How do they differ?

2. How devoutly religious are the various members of the Keane family? How do they interact with the church? Does this change over time?

3. The author abruptly jumps from Mary’s dating George to her marriage to John without providing any information about what happens to George and how John came into her life. Why do you think the author does this? Why introduce George at all if he is of little significance? Why does she not explain Mary’s courtship with John?

4. Why do you think Annie, the oldest girl in the Keane family, goes to bed with a total stranger, whom she describes in negative terms the first time she sees him? Why does she settle for less than her dreams? In what ways are her approaches to life negative?

5. What are the chances that Clare (the youngest daughter) and Gregory will make successful parents? Do you think they are in love? Do you think Gregory went into this marriage willingly? Why do you think Clare kept her pregnancy a secret for so long, too long to do anything about it? If Annie, Clare’s older sister, had been around, do you think Clare would have gone through with the pregnancy? Why or why not?

6. Why do you think John Keane was so attached to the young soldier who was killed in World War II that he named his firstborn son, Jacob, after him? What did John see in the young soldier? Why was he so affected by his death? Do you think that in naming his son Jacob, John cursed him?

7. Compare the Keanes’ second oldest son, Michael, with Damien, the older man who owned the bar. What do you think Damien represents? How does his character differ from Michael’s? Do they treat women the same? Would you guess they have similar life philosophies?

8. Discuss McDermott’s writing style. Do you think she is a good storyteller? Does she keep you wanting to turn the page to see what happens next? Does her writing create strong images in your mind? Is she easy to read? Does she present strong characters that you care about?

9. Discuss the characters in this story. Who is your favorite and why? What traits of this character do you identify with? Which of the characters do you think will find the most success? Which one bores you? Which one, if he or she were real, might become a friend? Which one is the weakest?

10. What roles do the minor characters play? Why do you think the author includes such people as Susan (who had the abortion), the neighbor Mr. Persichetti, and Professor Wallace and her husband David in London? How do they move the story forward? What themes or issues do they broaden?

Ideas for Reports and Papers

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1. Read about soldiers returning from both World War II and the Vietnam War. What receptions did they receive at the end of each war? How did these receptions differ? How were they the same? Were the psychological problems the soldiers from both wars experienced similar? Write up your findings and present them to your class.

2. Gather information about the differences between 1950s and 1960s U.S. culture. What were some of the major changes between how the average U.S. family lived in 1950 and how it lived in 1969? Look into the technological advances between these two dates. How did they affect families? What was happening politically in these two decades? What kind of music were teenagers listening to? What were the clothes like? Bring in as much information as you can find that demonstrates the changes that occurred and present them to your class.

3. Read McDermott’s National Book Award–winning novel Charming Billy, and then write a paper that compares that novel with After This. How do the families that are presented in both the novels compare? Does the plot stand out in Charming Billy, or is it subdued, as in After This? Turn your paper in to your teacher.

4. Mary Keane and Pauline are very different in their personalities and in the way they look at life. Choose a partner and write a dialogue between these two characters, expressing how they feel about men. Then deliver your short scene in front of your class.

After This

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1494

After This continues Alice McDermott’s fascination with a Long Island existence dominated by the tenets of Catholic faith and family life that predominated in the Irish family and the neighborhoods she grew up in during the 1950’s and 1960’s. It begins with Mary’s musings about her future as a daughter, sister, and young working woman who has not had much of a social life and sees herself taking care of her father and brother indefinitely unless fate intervenes. Fate takes the form of John Keane, a man she happens to sit next to at a lunch counter in Manhattan who seeks her out again. In their first brief encounter McDermott introduces a theme that runs through the book: desire. After a quick exchange “she turned back to her sandwich. And here, of all things, was desire again. (She could have put the palm of her hand to the front of his white shirt.)”

In later chapters Mary and her daughter Annie stand in line to view the Pieta at the world’s fair and fall under the spell of desire expressed in great art. Teenage sexuality surfaces in the comments Jacob and Michael make watching girls leave Mass at Saint Gabriel’s, references to girls’ bodies being pressed into recreation room furniture or mattresses, descriptions of Catholic nuns delivering admonitions about the sin of abortion, and details of Annie accompanying Susan Perischetti to her abortion. Pauline makes comments and thinks about the sexual and marital union of the Keanes throughout the novel, and Annie’s taking a British lover in her year of overseas study is one of the novel’s primary culminations. The novel is never far from the constricted world of desire, sin, tumult, confession, and longing that permeate the memories of Catholic schoolgirls of McDermott’s generation. The veneer of saintly stories and catechism covers the lustful curiosity and naïveté of the Keane girls and their classmates and peppers the conversations of their brothers with references to “good girls,” who are fast and “nice girls,” who are not. When Michael Keane gets to college, descriptions of how seedy bar owner Ralph sets up his coed conquests replace the story’s earlier innuendoes. Despite the fixation on sex and childbearing, the book has few explicit scenes and thrives on suggestion, much the same way teens found titillation in the 1950’s and early 1960’s before the sexual revolution. Desire in many forms creates tension as the story develops.

McDermott’s title, After This, refers to the time “after” the movements away from faith, family, and country that forever altered the world the Keane children inherited and then modified as they grew to adulthood. Like desire, which permeates the book, the title refers to Mary Keane’s whole life: her dreams of escaping the single life, her young married state, the baby days of her children, the aging of her husband, her involvement in the church, her old and habitual friendship with Pauline, the death of her son in Vietnam, the loss of a daughter to a foreign man and address. The novel offers a checklist of the assumptions that formed the parameters of Irish Catholic family life and expectations during the postwar and Vietnam eras. What happens to the Keanes happens after they construct a life based on those values. Memory in this book reminds people of what they had wanted, not what happened to them earlier.

McDermott’s recounting focuses on the pathos of dreams that do not live up to their possibilities. An edge of nostalgia-tinged disappointment skews everything in the novel toward a melancholy that suggests the waning usefulness of society’s faith in patriotism, institutions, and Catholic values in a time of social upheaval. Standing in line at the world’s fair, even in the intense heat “Mary Keane was aware of a certain pleasure in being relieved of the burden of a husband.” She returns home late, knowing John will not like it, and what is worse her friend Pauline knows his mood swings and demands as well. Mary regrets her confidences about “every moment in their marriage when [she] had not loved her husband, when love itself had seemed a misapprehension, a delusion and marriage . . . simply an awkward pact with a stranger, any stranger.”

This ambivalence extends to the church as well. When the Keane family attends Mass in the new Saint Gabriel’s, Mary misses the ornate stations of the cross in the old church. John misses the hat clips on the backs of the old pews, which Michael snapped once a Sunday. As with her marriage, however, Mary Keane sticks to the church, watching all four children grow and graduate under the nuns’ tutelage. Ultimately, it seems McDermott has her characters embrace their imperfect faith because abandoning it would leave too huge a vacuum.

With a nod toward orthodoxy, Susan Perischetti (the young woman of the abortion episode) meets Michael Keane (a skeptic about his religion) at his college bar. They talk but never feel themselves able to get beyond the kind of surface catching up you do with friends from the old neighborhood after a period of separation. These two characters seem empty. Susan, involved with a man in a “serious relationship,” finally extricates herself with the clichéd “It was good to see you, Michael,” and he responds in kind. His friends tell him they could see “disappointment, the failure to connect” as she walked away. Below the action of this encounter lurks the hint of a judgment about people who do not honor their religious traditions. They seem adrift.

Guilt is also part of Pauline and Mary’s friendship. Pauline’s determined and superior spinsterhood gives her an air of disapproval and crankiness that upsets the balance of the Keane household. Out of deference to Clare and Mary and Pauline’s long years of friendship, though, Mary and the family tolerate her presence and move her into their home after she takes a bad fall while making her way home from a Sunday dinner at the Keanes’. Cementing Pauline into the family presents another metaphor for the acceptance of the required attitudes toward marriage that define John and Mary Keane’s relationship and their orientation toward the church. They seem to continually “move over” to accommodate inconsistencies, doubts, or trials. Their irritations with one another, the necessity of obeying the church’s teachings, and their immense grief at the death of their oldest son are to be borne. Pauline is taken in out of a sense of duty, responsibility, and a type of desperate acceptance. She cannot be abandoned any more than the patterns they grew up with can be.

The Keane children struggle to change their legacy. Jacob’s life, cut short in Vietnam, makes only a partial turn away. Annie loosens the bond entirely, living in sin in London after a year of study abroad. Smart-mouthed, darling Michael ends up teaching in a Catholic school in Brooklyn, repeating his own youth without enthusiasm. He cannot reinvent himself. Clare, finally, swallows the history whole. Married too early because she gets pregnant, she stays in the house with her new husband, and the future seems to include Pauline living on as a mother-substitute after the Keanes retire and move away. Their struggles with their training and their pasts carry the struggle into the next generation.

For all its tragedies, After This is a quiet book. McDermott’s archaeological layering of events occurring simultaneously pays everyday life the compliment of intense attention. Readers see and feel each occurrence in a context that protects and suppresses at the same time. Her people are not heroes in any grand sense, but they are steady, dependable people who get up every day and try to meet their responsibilities and experience their joys in a decent, God-fearing way (mostly). They are not the cynical, edgy characters of much contemporary fiction.

They have their bouts of exhaustion with their routines, their irritations with their friends, and their satisfactions at knowing what is expected. What John and Mary do not see coming are the shocks of death and an unwanted pregnancy. Their collapse and resigned return to the rhythm of their life signal the value of a system of faith, however flawed. Reading this novel, one senses McDermott’s conviction that keeping the faith has its cost, but the reward is the ability to keep on living, the belief that life and whatever talent one has, as the priest says at book’s end, are “a gift.”

The Keanes’ thoughts about their single lives and their part in the family’s dynamic round out a sense of how faith and its practice can create a world where there may be sharp difficulties, but grace offers answers as well as restrictions. It is not a naïve affirmation of faith; it makes its case with a cast of vulnerable people persevering the only way they know how.

Bibliography

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Lacayo, Richard. 2006. “The Family That Drifts Together.” Time, 168 (13): 32. Lacayo offers a positive review of After This.

O’Neil, Joseph. 2006. “Review of After This.” Atlantic Monthly, 298 (3): 110. O’Neil states that McDermott continues to live up to her reputation as an excellent writer.

Teasley, Lisa. 2006. “Family Time.” Los Angeles Times, September 24, p. R 9. Teasley refers to McDermott as an heir to famed British author Virginia Woolf.

Zipp, Yvonne. 2006. “A Family Grows on Long Island.” Christian Science Monitor, September 12, p. 13. Zipp refers to this book as seeming more like a collection of short stories than a novel, but she praises McDermott’s writing style.

Bibliography

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America 195, no. 10 (October 9, 2006): 26-29.

Booklist 102, no. 21 (July 1, 2006): 9.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 14 (July 15, 2006): 694.

Ms. 16, no. 4 (Fall, 2006): 74-75.

The New York Times 155 (September 8, 2006): E34.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (September 10, 2006): 15.

The New Yorker 82, no. 28 (September 11, 2006): 83-85.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 25 (June 19, 2006): 37.

Time 168, no. 13 (September 25, 2006): 82.

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