Tompkins’ experience in the legal system (she was a mediator and judicial officer) exposed her to great tragedy, and this background informs her empathetic exploration of her characters’ lives. She writes about mental health and faith, particularly Isaac’s Quaker beliefs, without sentimentalizing or damning her characters’ experiences. In the novel, faith is simply part of life, a reality that is rarely so sensitively portrayed in fiction.
... a poignant and suspenseful debut novel about the tensions of love, anger, courage, forgiveness and everything in between. Set in a coastal Washington town rocked by a shocking tragedy, JoAnne Tompkins’ first book is an unforgettable story of life after loss ... a propulsive read that explores the after-effects of tragedy. There is much to be said for Tompkins’ weaving of anger and grief, love and forgiveness, but it is Evangeline and Isaac who make the novel unforgettable ... Tompkins is incredibly skilled at taking huge, universal themes and packing them into tight, intimate scenes, never once losing the strength or gut punch of the emotions behind them ... As utterly moving and poignant as the book is, I found some of Tompkins' choices a bit jarring. While Isaac’s chapters are written in first-person, Evangeline’s are in third, and the transition between the two could be distracting. There were also some subplots, like the plight of Isaac’s coworker, that felt extraneous to the main storyline. With so much potential and tension in the relationships between Isaac, Evangeline and Lorrie, anything that took the spotlight away from them felt vestigial ... an impressive debut by an author who is clearly here to stay.
While various locations are well-described, none of them really matter. Whether the interactions between the characters occur on a moon-lit sailboat, at an austere Quaker meeting hall, or in a noisy high school cafeteria, the setting is often irrelevant. The action takes place inside the heads and hearts of the narrative characters and the people with whom they interact. The narration technique itself is unique ... Ms. Tompkins is clearly a student of human nature. She captures tiny gestures and nuances of behavior that are telling, yet commonly pass unnoticed ... Sometimes reading more like psychological or philosophical musings on how people perceive themselves rather than like an actual novel, Ms. Tompkins delves into the interior lives of her characters ... The characters in this book willfully fabricate reality, wrap themselves in gauzy curtains, in an attempt to avoid the unpleasantness of their existence ... Although bleak, this novel of individual reflection and anguish ultimately resurrects the prospect of hope.