Book Review: What Comes After by Steve Watkins

Summary from Goodreads: After her veterinarian dad dies, sixteen-year-old Iris Wight must leave her beloved Maine to live on a North Carolina farm with her hardbitten aunt and a cousin she barely knows. Iris, a vegetarian and animal lover, immediately clashes with Aunt Sue, who mistreats the livestock, spends Iris’s small inheritance, and thinks nothing of striking Iris for the smallest offense. Things come to a head when Iris sets two young goats free to save them from slaughter, and an enraged Aunt Sue orders her brutish son, Book, to beat Iris senseless – a horrific act that lands Book and his mother in jail. Sent to live with an offbeat foster family and their “dooking” ferrets, Iris must find a way to take care of the animals back at the farm, even if it means confronting Aunt Sue. Powerful and deeply moving, this compelling novel affirms the redemptive power of animals and the resilience of the human spirit.

What Comes After is not a light read. This contemporary young adult novel is a powerful, heartwrenching tale of what can happen when life takes a devastating turn for the worse. I found myself thinking: how much can one girl take? But Iris is no ordinary girl. She is a strong, determined character surprisingly brought to life by a male author.  I had to check the cover several times because Watkins convincingly and effortlessly captures female thoughts and actions.

Even though Aunt Sue and Book are fictional characters, the author based their characters from a real newspaper article. It makes you realize that there are truly evil people out in the world like Aunt Sue, and Book.  I still don’t understand why they would treat Iris the way they did.  However, Aunt Sue and Book were portrayed as the villains early on, and Watkins did a great job at keeping them true to their character throughout the book.

I am a huge animal lover (and vegetarian for 8 years), so I often empathize with animals as much as humans.  This remained true with the goats depicted in the story.  When Book brutally attacks one of Iris’ beloved goats, I found myself reading really fast so it could all be over.   The last time I felt so much heartbreak was reading The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams.  Both stories are character driven, and demonstrate the endurance of human nature.  However, in this story, Iris experiences abandonment by her mother, father, and ultimately, best friend.  When Iris is introduced to the goats, she immediately connects with them and can’t abandon them –no matter the cost.  However, as readers, it’s clear that the animals also give back to Iris by helping to heal her emotional wounds and loving her unconditionally.

In addition to the animals, Iris’ friend Littleberry also aides in her emotional healing and growth. Although Littleberry has possibly the worst name ever, he is able to connect with Iris over their family issues.  I liked how there was just a hint of romance weaved in, but never enough to take away from the main storyline.

Overall, What Comes After is more than a story about a girl and her love of animals. It’s truly about loss, strength and triumph over life challenges.  If you’re ready to break out of your comfort zone, What Comes After is the book for you. 


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