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Quick Lit: 'Everything That Follows' by Meg Little Reilly

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Everything That Follows by Meg Little Reilly, Mira Books, 320 pages. $15.99.
  • Everything That Follows by Meg Little Reilly, Mira Books, 320 pages. $15.99.

A crumbling coastal cliff serves as a vivid metaphor for the speed with which human lives can change in Everything That Follows, the second novel from Meg Little Reilly of Hinesburg. The book's protagonist, Kat, is a young woman from a troubled background who's built herself a good life as a glassblower on Martha's Vineyard, living and working on the edge of the aforementioned cliff. As the novel opens, she's celebrating her first big sale. But one tipsy jaunt on a boat will change everything.

For Reilly, who is also a Vermont Public Radio commentator, the changing shoreline that threatens Kat's studio has literal significance, too. It's a consequence of climate change, which was the subject of her first novel, We Are Unprepared. While that "cli-fi" tale pivoted around a life-threatening storm, however, Everything That Follows is mostly concerned with the internal weather of its three main characters.

With Kat on that fateful boat trip are her friend Hunter, the dissolute scion of a Kennedy-like dynasty; and Kyle, a bartender she barely knows. After Kyle makes unwanted advances toward her, he ends up overboard. But who gave him the decisive push?

Uncertainty and fear keep Kat and Hunter from reporting the incident. When Kyle's body washes up on shore, their silence becomes a pact into which Kat draws her boyfriend, the upright Sean. Meanwhile, Hunter's family fixer offers Kat a fortune in hush money — but can she handle the guilt that would come with it?

Everything That Follows is more character study than suspense novel. How Kyle ended up in the ocean is no mystery to the reader, and is one only briefly to the characters. No intrepid detectives are hot on Kat and Hunter's trail, and the sole person who does suspect them, a nosy newcomer to the island, is less menacing than annoying.

Instead of white-knuckle thrills, Reilly offers a painstaking depiction of how Kat's new life crumbles, much like that cliff, undermined by the creeping force of secrets.

"If we tell, the whole world gets to decide what's true," Hunter tells Kat, not realizing that the stories we tell ourselves matter, too.

It's hard not to feel for Kat as she evolves from a shell-shocked accomplice, "wait[ing] for someone to come arrest her," to a proactive shaper of her own story. But that evolution takes a while, and Reilly keeps us at a remove from her characters by telling us more about them than she shows, sometimes with unnecessary repetition. ("If anything good came from Kat's childhood, it was a ferocious will to survive. Kat was a survivor.") One may wish that she would more often trust readers to draw their own conclusions.

Where the novel really shines is in its fascinating evocation of life on Martha's Vineyard, "a sort of kingdom all its own" with on-seasons and off-seasons, haves and have-nots. This is a place where sand gets everywhere, where "the borders between you and the land start to blur," Reilly writes. The island's year-round residents may resent the summer people, but there's a benefit to living in a vacationland where people go to forget real life: "If you happen to live on the Vineyard all year, you can be forever suspended in a mythology of your own making."

Place and class are strong presences in Everything That Follows; this is not a novel in which moral action entails a genteel indifference to material circumstances. Kat becomes a more compelling character when she lays aside the "mythology" she's made for herself and faces the cliff's inevitable collapse. For this reader, though, that change was a little long in coming.

Reilly will sign books on Friday, May 25, 6 p.m., at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Truth and Consequences"

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