When Ellie Lerner gets a phone call changing her life forever, it doesn’t take long for her to hitch herself up and fly across the Atlantic — right to London, where her best friend’s eight-year-old daughter Sophie is now motherless.
Awash in a sea of grief over the death of Lucy, her effervescent and dynamic dearest friend since childhood, Ellie leaves husband Phillip to help Greg, Lucy’s husband, and Sophie. In the aftermath of her mother’s death Sophie has closed up, refusing at first to speak to anyone — even her beloved godmother. In desperation, Ellie opens a book that once meant so much to her as a child: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Before bed each night, the novel’s words are like a balm — and Ellie comes to rely upon them to help them, the bereaved, make it through the seemingly endless days and nights.
As Ellie spends more and more time in London and even less with her husband in Boston, Mass., she’s forced to confront the truth of why she simply cannot got home again — to decide where home really is, exactly, if it can be anywhere. And who? Can someone be home for us in a way that no one else ever could?
Julie Buxbaum is one of those writers I read and set aside in utter dismay, realizing with a jolt that I’m not sure I could ever write a bit of prose to even begin to capture joy or pain like she does. There’s an honesty in Ellie, Greg, Sophie and Phillip’s grief — a totally open, naked vulnerability to the words. Given the heavy subject matter, the book could easily have become maudlin or clunky . . . but there was absolutely nothing awkward about the writing, which was so gorgeous I could have sipped it like hot chocolate, so decadent and comforting.
It was also fantastic seeing so many literary references in After You — especially where The Secret Garden is concerned. Ellie and Sophie find solace in the magical world of Burnett’s creating, using the orphan’s story of returning to the land of the living as a makeshift and unintended guide to working through their grief.
I wonder how many times Lucy sat in this exact spot, on Sophie’s bed, with the weight of Sophie’s head against her shoulder. If she, too, felt that sharing her favorite book was the purest way to express love, like telling your secrets or saying a prayer out loud.
The plot is heavily character driven and introspective, though plenty of twists and secrets revealed keep the story very interesting. Ellie struggles to balance the Lucy she once knew with the person she’s revealed to have become — and to find a way to care for Sophie in the way she believes Lucy would have wanted. After an explosive back story is revealed, I sat shocked and numb to the news, just like Ellie. And then we must decide what it changes . . . or if it changes anything at all.
Ancillary characters like Ellie’s brother Mikey and Sophie’s teacher Claire add a warmth and depth to the plot, as do Ellie’s mother and father. Unable to commit to each other again following their divorce, Jane and Mr. Lerner’s obvious love for one another is both tender and heartbreaking to watch. You can tell their children think so, too.
Like Marisa de los Santos’ Belong To Me, another of my most favorite novels, Buxbaum’s After You examines our desire to be home. Through Ellie’s eyes we slowly come to see what it means to work through fear and failure to create a family. The book leaves no Big Issue untouched: death, grief, infidelity, parenthood, friendship, love, family, loss . . . but Buxbaum’s touch is so deft, you barely have a moment to dry your tears before you’re flipping the page to another tender scene with Sophie, wise beyond her years, and feeling your heart contract with joy.
A gorgeous, unforgettable novel I know I’ll return to again someday — not to be missed. And Ms. Buxbaum absolutely owes me a pack of tissues.
5 out of 5!