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Then we meet Evangeline McKensey, a red-haired, pregnant 16-year-old with a connection to the dead boys. Abandoned by her drug-addicted mother, she makes her way to Isaac’s massive, half-renovated Victorian, knowing he’s rattling around in there by himself. (The Balches are divorced; aside from her appearance at his funeral, Daniel’s mother only appears in flashbacks.) Isaac welcomes Evangeline, offering her a plate of lasagna, a bed with a blue quilt and a box of his ex-wife’s clothes. He doesn’t ask a lot of questions, which might seem odd but … that’s Isaac.
“His core was fixed, like a steel stake that was driven through him, a rigidity that both anchored and pained him,” writes Tompkins, a former lawyer who displays an evenhandedness befitting her background.
Just as we think we’re going to ally ourselves with Isaac, we pivot to the other side of the fence, to the Geigers’ house. Jonah pipes up from beyond the grave, giving us a tour of the last day of his life and the difficult years leading up to it. We follow his mother, Lorrie, a quiet, long-suffering hero, as she works at a nursing home, ferries her daughter to school and finds time to drop off healthy salads for Evangeline (who says she is “practicing eating disgusting things for the baby”).
Slowly, the adults in “What Comes After” piece together the painful events that brought Evangeline into their lives. They lean into their blind spots as neighbors and as parents, facing an ugly truth about someone they trusted. And, of course, all the while Isaac and Lorrie wonder who is the father of Evangeline’s baby. They join forces to support her through a difficult pregnancy, but they rarely work in tandem. Will a child bring peace or divide them further? Will Evangeline be able to accept their help when she needs it the most?
Tompkins delivers a thoughtful, unexpectedly optimistic tale of people doing their best. The ending of “What Comes After” may not be 100 percent happy — how could it be? — but it has the feel of a beginning, which is exactly where most of us want to be right now.
What did you make of Isaac’s clearness committee? Did you find yourself searching “How can I become a Quaker?” or were you put off by the idea?
How realistic was Tompkins’s portrait of Evangeline’s experience of impending motherhood? What made her willing to accept such a major responsibility?
“My Absolute Darling,” by Gabriel Tallent. This novel about a near-feral child surviving abuse shares Tompkins’s approach of calibrating a treacherous story with flashes of natural beauty and human decency.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin,” by Lionel Shriver. Looking for a dark plot with zero silver lining? Start here. Through a series of (fictional) letters from a killer’s mother to her absent husband, Shriver shows a family unraveling and the slow, unrelenting march to the event that will tear them apart.