Life and Death is a gentle and sweet romance; it’s also a novel about overcoming grief and moving on with your life. It’s the first in a series of novels about a fictional small town named Toussaint, Vermont. While the town and its inhabitants are imaginary, the region, its culture and people are all very real, and author Perrino-Walker is at her strongest here, re-creating on paper a world she obviously knows very well.
The main character in the novel is a woman named Emerson Giroux, single mother of a teenaged daughter. Emerson is still grieving the loss of her husband in an accident four years ago and despite the strength she draws from a loving community of family and friends, she hasn’t really moved forward in her life since then. The tall, dark and handsome stranger (except he’s not really a stranger) who moves to town piques her interest, but he turns out to come with some baggage of his own that may be impossible to carry for a woman who’s suffered the kind of loss Emerson has.
The real strength of Life & Death, and the thing that makes me happy it’s the first of a series, is the novel’s strong sense of place. The largely French-speaking area of Vermont snuggled right under the Canadian border is a place rich with traditional music (which plays a huge part in this novel), lively spoken Franglais, and small-town values. There’s a rich tapestry of minor characters in this novel, enough that it’s easy to see how the author will have a wide range of possible stories to tell about the people in this small town.
If I have one quibble with this novel it’s that a large part of the romantic plot turns on the tried-and-true “a misunderstanding keeps them apart” trope that could so easily be dispelled with a good, honest conversation. Now it’s true that far too often we avoid those honest conversations, but after you’ve read enough novels where this is a key plot element, it becomes hard to believe that so many people, so much of the time, avoid sharing simple, basic pieces of information with each other! However, this is a minor complaint (and one I have with nearly every novel where romance is a major part of the storyline, so obviously most readers don’t have a problem with it!).
Perrino-Walker is a Christian novelist, and there’s definitely an inspirational element to the book — as Emerson struggles to move on with her life after loss, a more devout friend shows her that going to church to play the organ isn’t enough — she needs to read the Bible and pray for herself so she can develop her own relationship with God. The novel is light and lively enough that it manages to resist being preachy, and Emerson’s spiritual journey feels like a natural part of her overall journey away from despair and into hope.