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Learning 'Life' Lessons With McCorkle's Seniors

Amid a literary landscape increasingly rife with metafictional and postmodern high jinks, Jill McCorkle's sixth novel, Life After Life, is as resolutely down to earth and unpretentious as the hot-dog franchise owned by one of her characters. For her first novel in 17 years, McCorkle has dared to write a heartwarmer that takes place largely in a retirement home and stresses the importance of good old-fashioned kindness.

(Oddly, McCorkle and Kate Atkinson both have novels called Life After Life coming out this spring, which is bound to cause some confusion. But their books share little beyond a title.)

Readers of McCorkle's earlier fiction — including Ferris Beach, Crash Diet and Going Away Shoes — will appreciate another deftly orchestrated symphony of voices. Channeling the residents and staff of the Pine Haven Retirement Facility, in the fictional town of Fulton, N.C., she captures a homespun mix of saltiness, warmth, pathos and humor.

McCorkle's novel glistens with empathy for quirky, often flawed but above all believably human characters who are trying to navigate challenging relationships with spouses, parents and children. Her gentle wit and sympathetic portrayal of the offbeat and the elderly evoke Anne Tyler as well as several Southern storytellers, including Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Clyde Edgerton and All Things Considered commentator Bailey White. As in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, a not entirely rosy portrait emerges of a small community where people know a lot about each other — though often not the most important things — and where the dead live on in local memory.

The fulcrum of McCorkle's ensemble cast is Joanna Lamb, a prodigal child who returns home in time to make amends with her dying father (and take over his frankfurter business). Joanna has found meaning for her life as a hospice volunteer, helping people achieve good deaths by compassionately eliciting and recording their memories and last words in a journal — the entries to which make up some of the chapters in this novel. She takes under her wing a pierced and tattooed single mother who is determined to escape her own mother's legacy of prostitution and suicide, doing whatever it takes — including engaging in a risky affair and giving pedicures at Pine Haven — to give her baby a better life than she had.

One of the more lovable assisted-living residents is Sadie Randolph, a retired third-grade teacher who's slipping away to dementia but still believes "in dictionaries and manners" and that we're all "forever 8 years old" at heart. Among her frequent visitors is her all-time favorite student, Ben Palmer, an amateur magician who was all too effective at making his high school sidekick, Joanna, disappear — not just during his magic shows but from his life.

Ben is miserably married to the self-centered, social-climbing Kendra — one of just two characters McCorkle fails to render with any sympathy. Their 12-year-old daughter seeks refuge from her feuding parents with Sadie and her cohorts — who include an outspoken high school English teacher and a recently widowed lawyer from Boston who is drawn to Fulton because it's the hometown of her long-dead paramour. Each of these characters makes a discovery or connection that demonstrates how life can hold surprises well past our expectations.

While the various stories in Life After Life emphasize "the importance of making peace," not all of McCorkle's tales end happily or provide closure — as in life. One narrative strand, which I'll leave for the reader to discover, is particularly unsettling. Also, the short chapters giving voice to the recently deceased seem superfluous after Joanna's moving portraits. But the characters in McCorkle's quaintly touching novel are bound to stay with you after you put it down, giving them a sort of afterlife — or "life after life" — after all.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.