This book reminded me of 'If I Stay' from last August, it has the same storyline though slightly more adult themes. In 'If I Stay' a young girl is lying in a coma after a car accident, weighing up her life, it's pros and cons, to decide whether she has the desire to continue living. In 'After You'd Gone' there is similarly a young woman, Alice, lying in a coma, though her situation is more ambiguous, she may have attempted suicide, and as her family gather to watch over her you get flashbacks to her parents early years together, her childhood, her adolescence, her university years and through to her developing tumultuous relationship with John. Some of the time it is written in first person as Alice, occasionally describing her vague perception of her trapped situation, listening to her family and reflecting on things that have happened.
So there are layers of stories within her tale, primarily that of Alice's mother Ann. She is abandoned as a young child by her parents when they go to be missionaries and she is rescued from her loneliness and self-imposed isolation at university by Ben who she then proceeds to marry. But her husband is her saviour, but not the love of her life, this is another man, with whom she has a very long term affair and who, it turns out, is Alice's father (that's not a spoiler, it's obvious and you learn it pretty early on in the book). Alice's fiery temperament puts her at odds with her mother and she has a much more solid relationship with her grandmother (who is not really her grandmother of course.) Ann spends her entire married life living in her mother-in-law's house, feeling always slightly an outsider (not just there but in the local community, as an Englishwoman in Scotland), and you feel this colours everything about her.
(This is a spoiler warning) Alice meets and falls in love with John Friedmann, who's Jewishness turns out to be an issue, not for either of them, but for his father who has become abruptly orthodox since the death of his wife and does not want him to marry a gentile. This all felt a little bit contrived for my liking, causing unnecessary tension and upset, trying to create an atmosphere where you don't know if it will work out, but I was not concerned at any point. It is basically a love story with family complications. But I really liked the snippets of details from her life, it gave you a sense of her history and her nature, and I liked her very much, I felt like I understood her motivations and her behaviour, she reacted in real genuine ways to what happens. Time passes for them, they are happy, they get married and then he is killed in a terrorist bombing (a touch melodramatic but not incredible in the scenario). And her life falls apart. The last part of the book is about her grief and how she tries to cope with her loss, and how hard it is from even close family and friends to help. I had become very engaged with her as a character and thus very involved in their relationship. It is what makes it such a well written book, I was very moved by her reactions, I felt like I was looking in on someone who was truly grieving. Although only small parts were written from her personal perspective it was enough to let you experience it quite closely.
All the little bit parts were also nicely written; the sisters and the best friend, Alice's father (who knew all along that he wasn't), and strangely the doctor at the hospital, who I expected to become more important after we get a little background moment with his children, but then he only makes another brief appearance right at the end. So very much another character driven book, about families and secrets and loss. It left me feeling somewhat melancholy, not necessarily a bad thing.