The Aaldenberg family is a tangled mess of love, envy, fear, and regret. For generations, they ran a hardware store in a small tourist town. But when the times get tough, women of the family find themselves facing an uncertain future. Despite being the pillars of the local community, the Aaldenbergs lead a life of quiet desperation, with their store tottering on a brink of bankruptcy. AFTER THEY GO follows the four members of the family through a year that will irrevocably change their lives.
There’s Gwen, the beautiful oldest daughter, who is in line to take over the store from her father Harvey. However, she yearns to escape the small town and move to Boston. On the other hand, her sister Betta wants to take over the store, but finds herself exhausted after years of taking care of their recently passed grandfather. And while the youngest sister Esmerelda is a teenager dealing with all the messiness of adolescence, their mother Wanda is prone to the bouts of depression, in no small part due to her fear of the family falling apart.
While the struggles of the Aaldenberg women are painful, they are nevertheless a healthy antidote to the saccharine families often depicted in popular media. Too bad that AFTER THEY GO spends way too much time on a contrived conflict in which Betta believes Gwen plans to take the store away from her while Gwen only wants to shield her sister from the truth about the abysmal state of the family finances. It’s hard to take seriously a conflict that could have been easily resolved by a single conversation. An interesting side effect of this plot line is the way it depicts their father Harvey. While hardly a true villain, it is through his mismanagement, omissions, and denial that Harvey jeopardizes his family’s well-being. Then, when Gwen learns the true state of affairs, he emotionally manipulates her into silence.
Aside from this conflict, there’s plenty of engaging drama. There are lovers, sibling rivalries, petty jealousies and devastating self-doubts. All the main characters find themselves struggling both externally and internally. It is only when they admit their flaws to themselves and embrace their true virtues that they can begin to turn their lives into something resembling their dreams. Thus, AFTER THEY GO by J. Mercer ends on a note of hope – not only for the Aaldenberg clan but for all of the novel’s readers as well.
~Danijel Striga for IndieReader