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After You: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle)
by Julie Buxbaum

Published: 2010-06-01
Paperback : 368 pages
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When tragedy strikes across the ocean, Ellie Lerner drops everything--her marriage, her job, her life in the Boston suburbs--to travel to London and pick up the pieces of her best friend Lucy's life. While Lucy's husband, Greg, retreats into himself, his and Lucy's eight-year-old ...
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Introduction

When tragedy strikes across the ocean, Ellie Lerner drops everything--her marriage, her job, her life in the Boston suburbs--to travel to London and pick up the pieces of her best friend Lucy's life. While Lucy's husband, Greg, retreats into himself, his and Lucy's eight-year-old daughter, Sophie, has simply stopped speaking. Desperate to help Sophie, Ellie turns to a book that gave her comfort as a child, The Secret Garden. As its story of hurt, magic, and healing blooms around them, so, too, do Lucy's secrets--some big, some small. Peeling back the layers of her friend's life, Ellie is forced to confront her own as well: the marriage she left behind, the loss she'd hoped to escape. And suddenly Ellie's carefully constructed existence is spinning out of control in a chain of events that will transform her life--and the lives of those around her--forever.

Book Description
The complexities of a friendship. The unexplored doubts of a marriage. And the redemptive power of literature... Julie Buxbaum, the acclaimed author of The Opposite of Love, delivers a haunting, gloriously written novel about love, family, and the secrets we hide from each other--and ourselves.

It happened on a tree-lined street in Notting Hill to a woman who seemed to have the perfect life. Ellie Lerner's best friend, Lucy, was murdered in front of her young daughter. And, as best friends do, Ellie dropped everything--her marriage, her job, her life in the Boston suburbs--to travel to London and pick up the pieces of Lucy's life. While Lucy's husband, Greg, copes with his grief by retreating into himself, eight-year-old Sophie has simply stopped speaking.

Desperate to help Sophie, Ellie turns to a book that gave her comfort as a child, The Secret Garden. As the two spend hours exploring the novel's winding passageways, its story of hurt, magic, and healing blooms around them. But so, too, do Lucy's secrets--some big, some small--secrets Lucy kept hidden, even from her best friend. Over a summer in London, as Ellie peels back the layers of her friend's life, she's forced to confront her own as well: the marriage she left behind, the loss she?d hoped to escape. And suddenly Ellie's carefully constructed existence is spinning out of control in a chain of events that will transform her life--and those around her--forever. A novel that will resonate in the heart of anyone who's had a best friend, a love lost, or a past full of regrets, After You proves once again the unique and compelling talent of Julie Buxbaum.


Julie Buxbaum on After You

After You may be aimed at adult readers, but oddly enough, it sprang from a lifelong obsession with a singular children's classic: The Secret Garden. It seems to me that some kids? books begin with ?Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom? and some begin instead with a spoiled little girl orphaned by a cholera epidemic. I happen to like the latter kind. Frances Hodgson Burnett in her masterpiece, The Secret Garden, is not afraid of illness, or indifferent uncles, or even mean little girls. And yet, despite the darkness at its edges, her work manages to capture more magic and lightness than all of those other ?once upon a time? and ?they all lived happily ever after? books combined. Her characters? happiness is always hard-fought, and well-earned, and best of all, she introduces us to places and people who feel real--the at once menacing and alive moors of England, the country's spectacular gardens, a young girl feeling alone and lost in the world in the wake of tragedy.

But I realize I am supposed to only talk about my second novel, After You, here. And yet, I can?t seem to talk about After You without first paying tribute to Frances Hodgson Burnett, because After You is, among many other things, a love letter to The Secret Garden. In After You, when Ellie, my main character, discovers her best friend Lucy has unexpectedly died, she drops her own life in the Boston suburbs to move to London to help take care of Lucy's eight-year-old daughter. Overwhelmed by little Sophie's grief, Ellie turns to the children's classic for comfort, an opportunity for them to escape the real world at a time when they need to most. Together, Ellie and Sophie get lost in Burnett's magical language, and allow themselves the pleasure and the relief (and yes, the therapy too) that only reading can sometimes bring.

And so like The Secret Garden, After You, doesn?t begin with ?Once upon a time,? and nor does it end with ?happily ever after.? Yet, like the Burnett classic, it is at heart a happy book, one where we get to watch loves lost and gained, see our deepest selves discovered, experience the power of redemption, and understand the magic that can be found in turning the pages forward. To be honest, sometimes, I don?t feel like spending my afternoon in a faraway kingdom; I?d much rather rediscover the simple pleasure of reading in the garden. --Julie Buxbaum

(Photo © Indy Flore)

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.

Excerpt

EXCERPT

CHAPTER 1

Let’s pretend that things are different. That in the last couple of days, I haven’t become the kind of person who resorts to wishing on eyelashes, first stars of the night, and the ridiculous 11:11, both a.m. and p.m., in earnest and with my eyes closed. That Lucy and her family haven’t transformed into tabloid stars with a full picture on the cover of the Daily Mail with the headline Notting Hill Murdergate!, and the lead story on the BBC evening news. Let’s pretend that I am home, on the right side of the Atlantic, the one where I understand the English language, and that tomorrow will be just like early last week, or the week before that one, when the days were indistinguishable. That it’s not necessary to resort to memories—to a time before—when I think of Lucy.

How about this: Let’s just pretend that Lucy is not dead.

That she will not continue to be dead now, even though that’s what that means—dead.

“Want some more?” I ask Sophie, Lucy’s eight-year-old daughter, but she seems uninterested in the elaborate bowl of ice cream I’ve doused with concentric circles of whipped cream. She sits with her knees drawn to her chest and her arms wrapped around them. An upright fetal position, a pose that has been as reflexive for her as irrational wishing and pretending has been for me. Striped pastel pajamas ring her legs—pink, blue, yellow stripes—and on top, she wears a long-sleeved T-shirt with a decal of a purple horse with a silver mane. Her socks have abrasive soles that scratch and swish along the kitchen tiles, a sound I haven’t heard since my own childhood and that I associate with my younger brother, Mikey, asking for a glass of water before bedtime.

She shakes her head no.

“Is it good?”

She stays noncommittal. Her tiny glasses slip down her nose and are caught by her finger, pushed back up with an efficient tap. They are tortoiseshell frames, brown on the outside, pink along the inner edges, like an eyelid, and they magnify her already large brown eyes, so that she always looks just a tiny bit moony.

Sophie has not been speaking much since the accident. That’s what we’ve been calling it—Greg, Lucy’s husband, and I—“the accident,” a comforting euphemism despite the fact that there is nothing accidental about what happened. The word homicide is one that no eight-year-old should ever have to hear. Using accident makes us feel better too. As adults, we can handle an accident; that’s in our repertoire.

I am not sure when Sophie last spoke out loud. She was interviewed by the police on Thursday, right afterward, and somehow Lucy’s little girl found the strength to use her words and describe the unspeakable. When I arrived less than twenty-four hours later, blurry from grief and the red-eye, she said, “Hi, Auntie Ellie,” before putting her arms around my waist and burying her face in my shirt. But since then, since that first greeting, spoken in her crisp British accent, I can’t remember the last time I heard her voice. Did she say good night to Greg before he went upstairs and knocked himself out with Xanax?

“Soph?”

A shrug.

“Where did you get that shirt? It’s pretty. And that horse has really cool hair.”

Another shrug.

“Soph, sweetheart, are you not talking?”

Sophie just looks at me, her eyes burning in a silent protest.

Shrug number three. She looks impossibly small and thin, the stringiness of her arms and legs exaggerated by the unforgiving cotton of her pajamas. I wish she’d eat more. I want to feed her cookies and sugar cereal too. Tomorrow, first thing, I’ll replace their two percent milk with full fat.

My mother, a therapist, warned me this might happen to Sophie. That kids often go quiet for a while in the wake of a traumatic loss. Their only way of exerting control in a world in which they clearly have none.

It’s been only twenty-nine hours since Lucy’s funeral, an event so improbable that pretending still works. Surreal, too, like the news vans that are idling out front of her house, waiting for a sound bite. I want to scoop Sophie up into my arms and let her cry into my shoulder, but she is not the sort of kid you just scoop up. She would know that I was doing it more for my comfort than for hers.

“Okay,” I say, as if she’d actually answered me. “It’s all right if you don’t want to talk for now. But not forever, right? I love that voice of yours. Cheerio. Let’s take the lift and go to the loo,” I say in my best British impression, which used to be a surefire way to make her laugh.

“Speak like me, Mummy, Auntie Ellie!” Sophie used to demand of Lucy and me when I would come to visit, and the two of us would go back and forth, spitting out all of the British expressions we knew. Even after nearly a decade in London, and despite a husband and child whose inflections were as posh as the Queen’s, Lucy’s Boston accent had barely softened. She always paa’ked her caa’ in Haa’va’d Yaa’d.

Today, Sophie ignores me and looks around like she’s not sure whose kitchen this is. We are in the breakfast nook, with its Americana diner style, the sort you would see in a cornflakes commercial: two kids, two bowls of cereal, and two glasses of orange juice, with two parents—always two cheerful parents—rushing everyone out of their red pleather seats and off to school after their nutritionally balanced breakfast. I can picture Lucy deciding to put a booth in the corner, knowing that making your house look like a home is the first step.

“We’re going to be okay, you know,” I say, and run my fingers through Sophie’s curly dirty-blond hair; they get caught on a knot. I remember the first time I held her, when she was less than a week old, bald and tiny, and how she would sleep with her mouth opening and closing against my arm, her dreams, no doubt, filled with glorious imaginary milk. She had seemed so fragile then, so far from a real person, that looking at her now, a fully formed little girl, beautiful and tough and exerting her power in the only way she can, makes me glow with a vicarious pride for Lucy. My best friend did a lot with her thirty-five years on this planet; her exposé on the corruption in the Chilean government should have won her a Pulitzer. But of one thing I am sure. Making this creature, this fierce mini-Lucy, is my favorite of all.

***

When did I start speaking a language I don’t recognize as my own? I dismiss the stalking reporters with copied phrases I’ve learned from watching TV, please respect our privacy during this very difficult time; reassure Sophie with silly platitudes, we are going to be okay; lie to all the well-wishers at the funeral Greg and I hastily planned, Lucy spoke so highly of you. I guess when your world blows up, when you lose the person you were closest to for thirty-one years—almost my entire life—language skills are the first to go.

Here is what happened: Lucy woke up a few days ago, happy and healthy, trapped in a tent of all the clichés of a perfect modern adult life, with the international glamour of an American ex-pat thrown in to boot, and one hour and forty-five minutes later, while walking Sophie to school, she died. Just like that. No, she didn’t die, just like that. She was murdered. Apparently, there was a knife and a meth-head overly interested in her two-carat diamond ring, some idiotic resistance on Lucy’s part, and then it was over.

And, yes, there is a worst part of all: Sophie saw the whole thing.

I am not surprised Lucy fought back—she’s always had an inhuman amount of courage—but I am surprised she fought back for that ring. She hated that ring.

“Who buys a diamond-shaped diamond?” Lucy would say. It was one of her favorite bits when Greg wasn’t around. “I mean, seriously, a diamond-shaped diamond? It’s so redundant. I swear, all men think about is size.”

And now I am here, in her kitchen, sitting next to her daughter—my goddaughter—trying to adjust to this new world we have entered. After Lucy. I am sipping tea because, from my experience over the last few days, that seems to be what the British do in situations like these. As if consuming mass quantities of flavored hot water with a spot of milk and sugar will make everything better. But it’s too late for stopgap measures. The grief has started to burrow into my skin like a parasite, slow and steady, in inverse proportion to my disbelief.

“Soph, what do you want to do? You want me to be quiet, too, for a bit? We can just sit here.” I get a nod, slow, as if she wants to say, Yes, please. I can tell simply by looking at her that we both want exactly the same thing. For it all to stop for a little while.

And so the two of us do the closest thing I can think of. We sit in the booth and stare straight ahead at nothing in particular. I pull her in closer, and her head rests against my shoulder.

We pass the next hour this way. Silent and watchful. Like we are waiting for a bus that may never come.

Excerpted from After You by Julie Buxbaum Copyright © 2009 by Julie Buxbaum. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From the author:

1. Do you think we lose parts of ourselves when we lose those closest to us? Ellie seems to believe that Lucy truly knew and understood her, but do you think that Ellie ever really knew Lucy? Can we ever know the people we love the most?

2. Ellie talks about having two vows in direct conflict: her wedding vows and her commitment to being Sophie’s godmother. Her relationships with both Phillip and Sophie change dramatically through the course of novel. Do you think in the end she keeps or betrays those vows?

3. Why is Ellie so willing to leave her own life in Boston to pick up the pieces Lucy has left behind? Would you do the same thing for your best friend? Ellie claims she is only “doing the right thing,” but Phillip thinks that even Lucy wasn’t selfish enough to expect Ellie to drop everything and move to London. Who do you sympathize with more?

4. Ellie talks a lot about the various drafts of Lucy and describes her recollections of her best friend as “still and constant, memories an unfolded map, like the timeline in Sophie’s history textbook.” What does she mean here? Will her memories stay like that? What about Sophie’s memories of her mother?

5. Sophie and Ellie turn to the children’s classic The Secret Garden for comfort throughout the novel. Why do you think they are soothed by this particular book? Why do both want to play Mary when they playact the novel?

6. Why is the book titled After You? Who does the “You” refer to?

7. Ellie often uses words to suggest that they are all “acting” or “pretending” that things are normal to get through the days. Is this a common coping mechanism in the wake of loss?

8. Ellie, Lucy, and Jane all seem to be, at various times, women on the run. What are they each running from? What are they each most afraid of ?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Note from author Julie Buxbaum:

After You was my way of exploring a question that has long fascinated me: how well do we really know the people we love? How strange that the internal lives of our friends and partners, no matter how much time we spend with them, remain essentially opaque! With After You, I wanted to create a unique set of circumstances where one person would get the opportunity to quite literally stand in the shoes of another. For Ellie, when she steps into her deceased friend Lucy’s world, she learns that all of her basic assumptions about her life and their friendship were wrong.

After You is also a love letter to the children’s classic The Secret Garden. Ellie and Sophie (Lucy’s eight-year old daughter) turn to the book for comfort in their time of grief; together they get lost in Burnett’s magical language, and allow themselves the pleasure, the relief (and yes, the therapy too) that reading can often bring. After You, much like The Secret Garden, is at heart a happy book, one where we get to watch loves lost and gained, experience the power of redemption and the restoration of self, and understand the magic that can only be found in turning the pages forward.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "3 1/2 Stars for After You"by zodejodie4 (see profile) 02/12/11

3 1/2 stars. As a child, The Secret Garden was one of my favorite books, so I was very easily drawn in reading the synopsis of what this book would be about. Part love letter to The Secret Garden, part... (read more)

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