It's easy to tell when an author loves her characters. Someone has taken time to ensure they don't say trite things or move in conventional ways. The author has spent time with them, thinking them into full human beings, giving them circumstances in which their humanity raises up or flags under trial. Setting them in a specific time and place. It's wonderful to read a book that has been shaped so lovingly.
Tattler's Branch is a charming and tense read. The laborious opening descriptions of this apparently southern, or simply backwoods, community almost had me moving on, but I stayed in Skip Rock and was glad to meet Lilly. I thought this was an incredibly thoughtful and well rounded character. There was a strength to Lilly that I appreciated, but only because it was coupled with her honest fear in some of the more suspenseful scenarios of the book.
Impressed with her tenderness towards the people in her community I found the revelation regarding Lilly's pregnancies to be particularly touching and well written section of the book. The touching metaphor closing the chapter of this painful loss left me with a lump in my throat. "The breeze teased the petals just out of reach when she bent to pick them up. They danced across the yard and out of sight. Lilly lifted the vase and studied the peonies. They wouldn't last long either, but they were no less lovely, no less significant, for the briefness of their time. She would enjoy them while she could."
The book was more suspenseful than I had expected, but didn't seep into the margins of soap-opera-esque dramatics. I felt the tension of flesh and bone, love and failure, good and evil in every bend of the story. The only course it took towards the end was a little heavy handed in it's hope for Shade's salvation. I didn't think Lilly was out of line when she tells him that "we're all sinners...the ground at the foot of the cross is even", but I wasn't clear that Shade's response was genuinely redemptive. His perspective on things is lost by the end, we don't really know what he's thinking or how he's calculating thing, what's churning inside of him once the story stays with Lilly.
Overall, the story is a charming puzzler and one I would read again. I kept looking for traces of inauthenticity, but the characters feel true and the story is not overblown. The only detraction for me was the cover art. Why in the world would make a period piece and then put a woman on the cover who looks like a model in 2013? The only thing that tells you this might not be a modern-day story is the dress she's wearing. I guess even Christian fiction has to look Vogue.
You can read more from Jan Watson here.
This review has also been posted to Amazon and Goodreads.