January Book Review: What Comes After

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Trauma and events affect every person differently. In this month’s book club pick, What Comes After by Joanne Tompkins, we watch as a selection of citizens from a small Washington town are both drawn together and torn apart by a central tragedy.

There are a few central characters who narrate our novel.

What Comes After by Joanne Tompkins We meet Isaac, a teacher at the local high school and the father of a Daniel, a senior who was recently murdered by his childhood friend and neighbor, Jonah. Isaac is a Quaker, and his religion and lifestyle lend him to be quiet and introspective. He lives alone in an old, half-renovated Victorian home that still creaks and moves with the ghost of his son (or is it something he imagines?). He lives next to Lorrie, Jonah’s mother, who is also grieving after her son’s actions and his subsequent suicide days later.

Next, we meet Evangeline. This sixteen year old girl is living alone in a trailer. Her mother abandoned her several weeks earlier, who chooses boyfriends and drugs over raising her daughter. Evangeline is a minor, days from eviction, and pregnant. She decides to visit the house of a boy she met recently, a boy who was killed and whose father is also alone. She heads into town and up the hill to the old Victorian home, unsure of what she is doing or what she hopes to gain from it.

Isaac’s dog Rufus finds a filthy Evangeline under a tree in the yard during a terrible storm. He takes an instant liking to her, and Isaac decides to invite Evangeline to stay the night in the spare room. Even as he feeds her and offers spare clothes, he is not 100% sure he is doing the right thing, but he can admit that he is lonely, grieving, and wants to help her even as she lies about her mother and circumstances.

One day turns into two, then more. Isaac and Evangeline craft a coexistence that works for them. He quickly figures out she is pregnant but allows her to tell him later. He enrolls her in school and helps her settle into a semblance of a regular life. They talk about her pregnancy and make plans for them to live with Isaac. These two unlikely people are becoming a kind of family, the kind you choose.

But every character we meet is harboring secrets.

At our book club meeting, we talked about the different things that these people were hiding and how it impacted the others, whether intentionally or not.

Isaac holds back his grief and secretly wonders if he knew his son Daniel at all. Did he see him as he was or how he wanted to see him? Was Daniel a good person and by extension, did Isaac do a good job as his father? How did his Quaker faith impact his parenting and his failed marriage? Many of us were pleased to learn more about Quaker practices like silent meetings or the clearness committee.

Lorrie, Jonah’s mother, hid secrets about her husband and his mental health. She also saw signs from Jonah that indicated that things were wrong, yet she chose to remain silent. Did that make her a monster for hiding from them? Or did it make her a parent that was simply trying to protect her son? We all agreed that there might not be a right answer for this situation or that parents ever really know the right answer; we simply try to do the best we can.

Evangeline might hold the most secrets. She feels intense shame and scrutiny for her life before moving in with Isaac, even though she was a child. She was forced to live in dangerous ways and abandoned long before her mother physically left her. She actually met both Daniel and Jonah days before their deaths, something she neglects to tell Isaac. She is angry and frustrated and scared, yet she is always holding something back with those close to her out of that same fear.

We hear from Jonah in posthumous snippets, and he held secrets about his life. His father was violent and suicidal, and the family tries to cover up his untimely death. He is unpopular and awkward, letting a more outgoing Daniel treat him poorly. Instead of speaking up to Daniel or opening up to someone, he holds all his experiences and rejections inside. His snippets are tragic, and they help us understand how the central tragic event might have occurred.

Yet without the aforementioned tragedy, these people may never have met or influenced one another at all. And that tragedy is heavy on all their minds and hearts, it is also what keeps them coming together, even in what comes after.

We had different degrees of likability, but our book club enjoyed What Comes After. It is tragic and heartbreaking. It is a story with raw emotions and real characters who are processing so much while growing, both individually and as a community. We would highly recommend this read and hope you enjoyed it, too!

The Other Black Girl bookThanks for reading with us this month! We are reading The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris for our February book. Look for our virtual book club meeting announcement towards the middle of the month, and join us!

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Rachel Carpenter
Rachel has been an Air Force spouse for 17 years. Her husband's career had taken them to many assignments around the world, and she currently lives in Hawaii. She is a mother of four children; their ages range from fifteen to four years old, so her life is often exciting and challenging. She holds a BA in English and a MA in Management. When not busy with work or her family, she enjoys volunteering within the military community and has even been a Key Spouse at two stations. Rachel has always enjoyed writing and literature, and she is happy to find this community to combine these interests. She has been featured on We Are The Mighty, Her View From Home, AMSE, The Beautifull Project, Hand-in-Hand QC, and other publications - but The Military Mom Collective is her home. :)