Review: Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Title: Afterwards
Genre: mystery, contemporary, thriller
Series: N/A
Pages: 401 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: expected April 22 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3.25/5

There is a fire and they are in there. They are in there...

Black smoke stains a summer blue sky. A school is on fire. And one mother, Grace, sees the smoke and rush. She knows her teenage daughter Jenny is inside. She runs into the burning building to rescue her.

Afterwards Grace must find the identity of the arsonist and protect her children from the person who's still intent on destroying them. Afterwards, she must fight the limits of her physical strength and discover the limitlessness of love.

Afterwards was a lot of things for me: frustrating, alienating, weird, intriguing, and eventually, quite moving. There's a lot of hype built around this newish author, largely due to the wild success and continued  love for her first novel, Sister. With that in mind, I went into this sophomore effort with high hopes that were never quite met. There's a lot of potential in this novel about mothers and daughters, love, and independence but it never quiiiite reaches the heights it could. I want to clarify my 3.25 out of 5 up there - it's the result of knee-jerk reactions deep thinking. The first 300 pages were a solid, disappointing 2 out of 5 stars. An awkward and jarring style (second person POV, told with the present tense), a somewhat overly perfect main character, and a truly irritating overemphasis on italics on nearly every page (and I am an italics, bold and strikethrough addict) mar an intriguing and thoroughly gripping mystery. The final 100 pages of twists, turns, "Oh my god!" and "No way!"s do much to alleviate the various, now-previous problems I'd had and also made me happy I hadn't given up early on this one.

The second person POV rarely, rarely works for me as a reader. In fact the only time I have actually appreciated it as a storytelling medium were for the rare interludes during The Night Circus which used it. Here, with Grace narrating everyone's actions to/at them ("You do this, say this, want this" etc.), it's very cumbersome and unwieldy to read as a non-involved observer. By the time I grew inured to the strange and uncomfortable style used throughout Afterwards (and it took a while, trust me), I could start to appreciate the subtlety of the mystery that Lupton has created. It's both layered and nuanced in its inception and execution - truly the strongest element to the novel is the whodunit. This is not one of those thrillers where the culprit or culprits is/are transparent from the beginning - several cleverly manipulated red herrings lead the police investigation, and my theories, jumping from character to character. I have to applaud such deft narrative sleight-of-hand - I was curious from the start. Even when I was close enough to giving up, the question at the heart of Jenny's problems wouldn't let go of my imagination. 

I wish I could appreciate the spectral-astral plane-ghost-spirit-whatever the main characters have going on. The fact that what's going on with the two main characters isn't really explained in depth was another misfire for me - it came off as gimmicky and rather calculated, to me.  Another disconnect was with the main character and narrator, the mother, Grac(i)e. She, her husband, her daughter and son were all too perfect to be entirely believable. And as the novel went on and revelation led to revelation, it becomes apparent that Grace doesn't really know anyone outside her family at all. <spoiler>Her closest mother-friend has been abused for years? Elizabeth Fisher was left by her husband? Knows nothing about Rowena even though Maisie is very knowledgeable about Grace's own family? Her snap, inaccurate judgements of Ivo due to her own feelings?</spoiler> Her love for her children was certainly compelling and believable, but her harsh judgement of sister-in-law Sarah further spoke to Grace's own shortcomings and didn't inspire any likeability. Sympathy is entirely another matter, because as a "spirit-whatever", her interactions with Jen do allow Grace a bit of growth and personal evolution though it takes forever.

The story at the heart of Afterwards is definitely a good one - the mystery well crafted and thought out, but the style really does take a large adjustment. I'm obviously of two minds about this because there's much to love and a lot to lament. There are intense moments of brilliance book-ended by the awkward style and gimmicky status of the main character, but for all its faults, I ended up enjoying Afterwards. It gave me emotional whiplash and I'll keep my eye out for what else this author does in the future.


  1. Excellent review -- you highlighted everything I struggled with but reminded me that there were some seeds of awesomeness. I will definitely look for Lupton's next book.

    1. Why thank you - it's hard to write reviews on mysteries without spoiling things!

      It just sucks to have high hopes dashed by style, of all things. I think I'll borrow/library loan Sister - just in case I end up with a severe case of haterade for it.


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