In her mid-60s, Antonia Vega—author, retired English professor, and recently widowed—feels the secure foundation of her life in a small Vermont town crumbling beneath her. No stranger to domestic conflict and political unrest as a child growing up in the Dominican Republic, the immigrant professor has filled her life with the words of others—literary gems that offer her solace, direction, and challenges, and which she taught to her students. When her husband Sam, a well-loved doctor and social justice advocate, had been alive, he had engaged with people and their interminable problems with open arms and unconditional love, while Antonia had tried to shelter herself—she had a highly sensitive personality, after all, and was easily overwhelmed.
Now that Sam, her buffer and anchor, is gone, Antonia can’t seem to hold people and their problems at bay. Even as she seeks signs of Sam—windows into the afterlife—she can’t get away from the here and now. One of her three sisters goes missing just as Antonia discovers a pregnant undocumented teenaged girl sheltering in her garage. Antonia wants to let others take the responsibility for her sister and the teen, but she keeps coming up against Tolstoy’s three questions that she’d taught her students: “What is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?”
At first, Antonia convinces herself that she is the most important one and that she needs to care for herself before she offers help to others. But somehow that answer never satisfies, and she is reminded of Sam’s mother, who, whenever she found herself in a tough situation, would say, “Well, let’s see what love can do.”
As Antonia navigates her new reality, she finds comfort in an eclectic mix of beliefs—Christianity, Buddhism, and Zen—and learns firsthand the cost of love and the ordinary, yet amazing, things that love can do.
In this astute, tender, and humorous novel for adults, Julia Alvarez paints a picture of a woman struggling to be “the larger version” of herself, and coming to realize that the path to "greatness" comes through brokenness, sacrifice, and dying to self.
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)