Life After Death

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The protagonist of Carol Muske-Dukes’s Life After Death, Boyd Schaeffer, is confronted with some major tragedies involving death. Working on a career as an obstetrician-gynecologist, Boyd loses one of her patients, a mother of three, while performing an abortion. Although not her fault, Boyd abandons her career and marries Russell, who is prone to drinking and habitual lying. After Russell loses their four-year-old daughter, Freddy, at a public park, Boyd confronts him as being too irresponsible. In a moment of rage, she wishes him dead. The next day he dies of a heart attack while playing tennis.

Weighed down with grief and questions surrounding Russell’s death, Boyd returns to medicine in an effort to find closure and redemption. She befriends Will Youngren, the undertaker who handled Russell’s burial. Will is preoccupied with the death of his fraternal twin sister, Signe. He takes Boyd and Freddy on a trip to a dark cave, where Freddy searches for her father, whom she believes needs her help to return to the living. As a result, Boyd finally realizes that endings often generate beginnings in the process of life and death.

Although the story does not always flow smoothly, Muske-Dukes unfolds an instructive, chilly, heartbreaking, sometimes funny, humanistic story exploiting many of the facets of death, grief, and survival. Overall, the characters are strong and well developed, but the main one, Boyd, is not as compelling as some of the supporting cast, including Freddy and Russell’s wealthy mother, Gerda. The book ends almost too simply for real life, leaving the reader sensing that Boyd has resolved the problems associated with her difficult tragedies too easily. The novel does, however, provide insight and wisdom into coping, moving on, and surviving the complex trials one faces when confronted with untimely death.