When you read a novelist's first book and fall in love, I'm not certain you can know, fully, why it is you loved the experience. Was it the story? The character development? The writing itself? Of course, you can know which aspect you liked best, but it's not until you've read subsequent books by the same writer that you can know if you like the writer or just that book.
So second books are important. When I read Rosamund Lupton's first book, Sister, I started it because it was about sisters, a topic I like to read about, and because it got a glowing review on Kirkus. I started it to "examine the death of someone else's sister so I could have an inkling of what it would be like to lose my own"; I finished it because I loved the writing, the ebb and flow of the story, and because I don't normally even read murder mysteries, let alone gush about them, but I loved this one.
All of which is a long way of saying: I started her second novel, Afterwards, with a combination of hope and trepidation. Did I just like her first book because of its topic? Or would I be able to enjoy another murder mystery if it was well-written and had compelling characters? Did I like the writing or the writer?
Something I loved about Sister was the writing technique; it's written as a letter to one of the characters. Afterwards does the same thing: It's a long love letter written by Grace to her husband Mike. Only, she's not really writing it, as she's in a sort of suspended animation: her body is trapped in a hospital bed with brain damage because she'd run into a burning school to rescue her daughter, Jenny. So the "I" of Grace is an unheard observer (accompanied by Jenny's soul, too, as her burns are so severe that she's under constant sedation) finding pieces to the mystery by listening to conversations and reading over people's shoulders.
The mystery, of course, is who set the fire in the private school Grace's son Adam attended. Jenny was working there as a part-time aide, and on the day of the fire she had been acting as the school's first-aide nurse, sitting in the school while the students and teachers were outside for field day. As the story moves along, you discover Jenny's recent history with a hate-mailer, and Grace's friend Maisie (whose daughter, Rowena, also rushed into the burning school but wasn't as badly injured) whose husband, Donald, is secretly horrible, and the story of a teacher at the school, Silas, who was fired after a playground accident. You are certain that the arsonist is among all of these characters. In fact, at different points in the novel, I was certain that each of the supporting characters was the culprit.
But, then, honestly: I don't love mysteries. Sometimes it feels like the writer, who of course knows how it all ends, is doing this all just to keep you reading, and then I had an epiphany and I knew who'd set the fire, just not the particulars, so I had a stretch of sort-of-annoyed reading about 2/3rds the way in. What kept pulling me back was wanting to know just how (the why is obvious) this character committed arson. And, more importantly, the characters themselves.
Specifically, the relationship between Grace and Mike, even though they never really interact in "real" time, only in memory, is so well done. It feels like a real marriage, with its blend of annoyances, frustrations, tender happinesses and rare ecstatic moments. "I know that hearts don't really store emotion," Grace thinks. "But there must be some place in us that does. I think it's a jagged and anxiously spiky place until someone loves you. And then, like pilgrims touching a rough stone with their fingertips, nineteen years of practicing wears it smooth." (If I'd read my own copy, instead of the library's, I would have underlined that part.)
In fact, the novel has several different threads, not just the mystery. It tells about friendship and being a mother to small people and being a mother to teenagers. Because Adam's character feels less involved but Jenny's is so important (and because I have my own teenage daughter who is about to stride into the grown-up world), how Grace feels about Jenny hooked me. "Hook" in an almost-literal sense; there was much sniffing on my part. She has a metaphor about growing up and shoes, and then there is her idea about letting go: "I can't let go of my rope around her. Not yet. I've been spooling it out as her legs got longer and her figure curvier and stares lingered, but I'll keep on holding it until she can safely swim out of her depth, without drowning, from the shore of childhood to that of adulthood."
Like Sister, Afterwards has a powerful ending. It wasn't a twisty surprise but subtle and ravishing. And, despite that little bit of being annoyed, I think that Lupton's second novel has cemented the deal: she's got a fan in me.