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.
All of this abundant material is deftly handled by Tompkins, who employs three different and very individual voices to tell her challenging tale: Isaac’s and Jonah’s stories are told in first person, while Evangeline’s is revealed at a remove in third person. The tone? It’s almost relentlessly morose and melancholy, but that’s not bad; in fact, the novel is very good but emotionally difficult to read. As for the characters: they are examined in microscopic detail, readers coming to know them almost better than they know themselves. Expect some tears before the story ends, but also admire the art that the author brings to this exceptional literary thriller.