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Book Review: ‘After Annie,’ by Anna Quindlen



In “After Annie,” Quindlen uses these details to help us understand the experience of loss. Husband, daughter, friend — everyone remembers Annie in bits and pieces, and these memories are like the tiles of a mosaic, laid down into a gorgeous, fractured portrait of what they’re missing. As Bill puts it, “All the general things people said, about how the person was a good friend and a good wife and a good mother, were useless, almost insulting in their lack of specificity.”

Their Annie was the person who “was always forcing the kids outside to look up: thumbnail moon, half-moon, new moon, full moon.” Sometimes, when Bill reached into the closet for a shirt, “a sleeve or two from her side would touch his arm, like it was reaching for him, and there would be a faint smell, lemon and hand cream and something else, maybe her shampoo.” Ali remembers the particular way her mother talked her through long division. Annemarie feels her friend sitting in the passenger seat, even now, saying, “Eyes on the road.”

There’s a rotting half-onion in the fridge because Annie cut it and nobody can bear to throw it out.

The very best thing about this book might be the way Quindlen, an anthropologist of domesticity, catalogs the sparklingly random moments that make up human experience. On siblings: “Ali heard someone breathing behind her, and she knew it was her brother because she’d heard him breathing behind her her whole life — in the car, in the line for the matinee at the movies, on the school bus.” On funeral food: “One of the baked zitis is really good and one is kind of eh.” On children: “The bread had those tiny sesame seeds along the crust, and he had watched, dead-eyed, as Benjy insisted on picking them all out, even once there was syrup, so that there was syrup under his fingernails and later lint from his gloves on his fingertips because of it. Then he’d sucked on his fingers and gotten the lint in his mouth, so that all during dinnertime he was picking red fuzz off his tongue.”

The book is more than the collection of minutiae I’m sketching here — secrets and drama only partly related to Annie’s absence. These give the book some shape that maybe the details alone couldn’t have. And if there’s a false note, it may be that the book takes place in the present. There’s something slightly sepia-toned about it: The kids call the adults Mr. and Mrs. and nobody seems to be glued to a screen. That said, they do all repeatedly call Annie’s phone to hear her outgoing message, and I love that detail. Even just typing “outgoing message” made me choke up — I had never thought of those words that way until now.

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