At first, I thought I was on the posh set of the old television series Dallas with its rich spoiled young matrons prancing about the country club and gossiping, but Anton DiSclafani’s The After Party is set in Houston and the lives of two friends reveals more than garden party chitchat.
The story is set in the nineteen fifties, neatly using the stereotype of the woman’s role at home and in society to underline the structured lives of the two wealthy main characters – both named Joan. Friends since their first day of school, Joan Fortier and Joan Cecelia (Cece) Buchanan grow up together in Houston’s debutante society. Cece willingly gives up her first name and her independence to follow in the shadow of the more beautiful and daring Joan.
Just as she did in her first book, the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, DiSclafani simmers her tale for many pages before bringing the plot to a boil with the big reveal of a devastating secret. The girls’ lives seem shallow and insulated as they meander through parties and bars, more concerned about the latest fashion than the news. Chapters alternated between the lives of the young girls as they grow into teenagers and their lives as twenty-five year women in Houston society. Some secrets are revealed – the cause of Cece’s mother’s death; others are tantalizingly dangled until the end.
Throughout the story, Cece, the narrator, assumes the role of protector and savior for her best friend Joan, obsessed with wanting to be with her, even after Cece is married and has her own child. Cece becomes consumed with wanting to know everything Joan is about, yet she never really succeeds. After a while, you will want to shake her and tell her to get her own life. Joan, on the other hand, is the mystery – publicly the most popular girl, attracting the gossip columnists by her prominent place in society and also by her antics, and privately unhappy with her superficial life. Her periodic disappearances may give a clue to her attitude, but the big reveal affecting her life is not until the end of the book.
Somewhere around the middle of the book, I got caught up in the characters’ lives and realized the substance of the plot was deeper than an historical commentary on big-haired Texans over sixty years ago. The relationships were the key to understanding the times, not only from the ladies who met weekly over cocktails to the husbands who worked or inherited money in the oil industry, but also to the trusted servants – chauffeurs who saw everything but kept silent and housekeepers who raised the children.
Family relationships are strained through the generations, especially mother and child. Joan’s mother fits neatly into the controlling authority who tries to manage her daughter’s life – her public persona anyway – and magnanimously takes in Cece to live in the Fortier mansion after her mother dies. Cece never has a close relationship to her mother, who dies when Cece is fifteen, but inherits millions from her and spends it all on fashionable clothes. But the most curious is Cece’s mothering of her preschool son, Tommy, who does not speak nor look anyone in the eye. His tendency to autism is ignored by both parents as they concentrate on Joan instead.
After Joan reveals her secret, the books drags on for a few more chapters to tie up lose ends and neatly assign the women’s lives to their proper place in the universe – Joan finally free of the shackles of society, Cece firmly planted in it. I wondered if the story would have had more impact if it had ended pages earlier, but, overall, the focus on friendship was an excellent vehicle to a time and place in history when money and superficiality reigned for some. And Ray’s summation may have targeted DeSclafani’s view of real intimacy – ” You can’t know someone who doesn’t want to be known.”
Related Review: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls