Tender charts the marshy territory of friendship, obsession and love, and offers no easy path. Catherine may lose her way with James, but her self?deceit is never complete – she maintains a terrible awareness of what she is doing. McKeon’s immersive, unflinching yet humane portrait of Catherine makes Tender richly nuanced and utterly absorbing.
McKeon’s ability to capture the intricacies of this relationship is startling. She carefully portrays every nuance of their platonic but 'rich, layered affection' ... Tender is a much louder novel [than McKeon's debut], allowing us to be almost entirely privy to the unsayable ... McKeon paints a rich and painfully honest portrait, so bursting with life and intelligence that it reverberates in the mind long after the novel has come to a heartbreaking end.
Well before you reach the well-earned, absolutely perfect ending, McKeon lets you know unequivocally that this is a book about a rare connection ... This sometimes exasperating but ultimately moving novel suggests that while love may not be undying, try as we might, it is uncontrollable.
McKeon is startlingly good at evoking the feeling of being their age: that heedless overconfidence seesawing with rampant insecurity. Her supporting characters are pleasingly vivid, too — and it was fun to spend nearly the whole book trying to figure out whether Emmet, one of Catherine’s fellow students, was doggedly crushing on her or on James.
[McKeon's] story of Catherine and James asserts the dignity of a relationship that has always been condescended to and diminished, surely in part because it makes the heteropatriarchy nervous, by treating both characters like discrete people rather than complementary caricatures — and depicting their friendship, love, codependence, and heartbreak in excruciating detail.