Summary: Isaac lives alone, grieving the recent death of his teenage son, Daniel. Next door, Lorrie struggles with a heinous act committed by her own teenage son. Separated by only a silvery stretch of trees, the two parents are emotionally stranded, isolated by their great losses–until an unfamiliar sixteen-year-old girl shows up, bridges the gap, and changes everything. Evangeline’s arrival feels like a blessing, but she is also clearly hiding something. Soon all three characters are forced to examine what really happened in their overlapping pasts, and what it all possibly means for a shared future.
Rating: 5/5 stars
It’s very seldom that books make me cry. Not just a wave of emotional chills or getting a little misty-eyed, but I’m talking full-blown tears streaming down my face, gross guttural sobs. What Comes After absolutely, completely ripped me apart and destroyed me. And for that, I love this book. This might be one of the best books I read this year.
Contemporary fiction is generally pretty hit or miss for me. I hated Little Fires Everywhere because I found it stale and dense, and that’s a common reaction to contemporary fiction for me. But there’s something that Tompkins does with this book that hits every checkbox here. It’s emotional and serious, with moments that make you feel like you’re going to combust, but it also has snippets of humor that make you smile. The characters are realistic and loveable. The situations are extremely heavy but they’re also eye-opening and necessary.
The characters are so well done that you can’t help but root for them, despite the bad things they might have done in their lives. It’s difficult to pick a favorite here. Evangeline comes from a terrible background, homeless and pregnant as a teenager. She’s emotionally driven and quick to flee in her anger, and while this sets back the progression of her relationships with anyone, it’s completely realistic. She behaves exactly how I expect someone in her situation to behave. Over the course of the story, she begins to understand what it is to have a home and some semblance of a family, no matter how untraditional it may be, and she learns to open her heart to those people around her. She might still be stubborn and temperamental, but she grows throughout the course of the story and becomes compassionate and empathetic to others. Her growth -and really, her acceptance, her realization of what she deserves- is the driving force of this story.
On the other side of the story is Isaac, heartbroken at the recent loss of his son and the divorce from his wife. He’s alone and slightly jaded, and again, we watch him transform throughout this story as his relationship with Evangeline blossoms. He learns to stop being so bitter about situations beyond his control. He accepts that maybe his son wasn’t the perfect child he always saw him as. He realizes he turned a blind eye to a friend’s situation for selfish reasons. He understands that his religion may have helped him in life, but his lack of honesty about it has hindered him.
Both characters are in dire need of love in their lives, and it was refreshing to see a familial love blossom versus a romantic one, which is usually par for the course for fiction. Isaac knows Evangeline isn’t his daughter, that he cannot offer her that type of relationship, but he still takes her under his care because it helps both of them. Evangeline finally learns to accept his offering for the same reason.
Scattered throughout the book are chapters told from Jonah’s perspective on the day he commits suicide. Knowing what Jonah did that leads to his suicide makes it initially difficult to have any sort of compassion for him, and of course there isn’t any justification for his actions. That being said, I appreciated this third perspective to give a better understanding of the why. I felt my heart break just as much for Jonah as I did for the other characters in this book.
This is a heavy, slow-moving story about grief, loss, love, and acceptance. I think in one way or another, readers will find a way to connect with this story, to have it pull at their heartstrings, whether gently or with full force.
For the first time in her life, she could feel in her chest the hearts of others with such consistent clarity that she was willing to pay the awful price of truth. Their pain, their need, now hers. It was a wonder -a painful, horrible, terrifying wonder- this unexpected understanding of love.