Thursday, May 23, 2013
Just Finished Reading … When You Were Here
by Daisy Whitney
To be published by Little, Brown BFYR
on June 4, 2013
Source: invite widget for e-ARC from the publisher.
Connect with the author: blog : Twitter : Facebook.
Summary (adapted from Goodreads:) Danny's mother lost her five-year battle with cancer three weeks before his graduation -- the one day that she was hanging on to see. Now Danny is left alone, with only his memories, his dog, and his heart-breaking ex-girlfriend for company. He doesn't know how to figure out what to do with his mom's estate, what to say for his graduation speech, let alone how to live or be happy anymore. When he gets a letter from his mom's property manager in Tokyo, where she had been going for treatment, it shows a side of his mother he never knew. So, with no other sense of direction, Danny travels to Tokyo to connect with his mother's memory and make sense of her final months, which seemed filled with more joy than Danny ever knew. There, among the cherry blossoms, temples, and crowds, and with the help of an almost-but-definitely-not Harajuku girl, he begins to see how it may not have been ancient magic or mystical treatment that kept his mother going. Perhaps, the secret of how to live lies in how she died.
The short version: This book is fantastic! A beautiful, moving, life-affirming must-read for fans of Where She Went and Just One Day by Gayle Forman, Golden by Jessi Kirby, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson.
The longer take: If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know that I've been trying -- and loving -- lots of stuff outside my comfort zone lately: aliens, zombies, werewolves, and clones. But my heart always beats a little faster when I find a fantastic contemporary/realistic YA, a book that doesn't need any paranormal bells and whistles or stakes-raising post-apocalyptic disasters to tell a gripping and heartfelt story.
I suppose you could call When You Were Here a "grief book," but I'm not overly fond of that term. It's a little flippant. Plus, it just sounds depressing. And while there is plenty of loss in this book -- tragedy and death and broken relationships -- it is not depressing at all.
Okay, so what is this book about, you ask? It's about a teenage boy coping with two enormous losses -- his mother's death and the fact that the girl he loved broke up with him without explanation. Danny's angry and confused and hurting and acting out. Since his father is also dead, Danny's mom's best friend is looking out for him, but -- awkward! -- she's also the mother of the girl who perfunctorily dumped him.
Danny spent a lot of time in Japan growing up, and when he gets a letter from the property manager of an apartment owned by his family, he decides to jet off to Tokyo. His mother had been consulting a doctor there, and he hopes that this doctor can give him some answers about his mom: why had she stopped taking her medicine? Why couldn't she have held on for his graduation? How can the world just go on when he's lost so much?
Danny has lost a lot. First his father died, then his sister seemed to turn her back on their family, then his girlfriend broke up with him, and then he lost his mother. As the book progresses, it become apparent that all of these people were keeping secrets from one another, secrets that were pushing them apart.
At one point I got a little worried that When You Were Here was cheating with that whole "characters who don't talk to each other" plot device. You know, those books in which a simple conversation would clear up all the misunderstandings? Then I realized that this book was actually about people who don't, or, more likely, just can't figure out how to talk to each other. Sometimes explaining ourselves and understanding others can be really hard. Danny's sister was adopted as a baby and is in China reconnecting with her roots. Danny's ex-girlfriend, Holland, has yet to explain why she pulled away from him. Danny's mother didn't tell him that she'd stopped taking her medication.
Danny's time in Japan -- in which he is an outsider who doesn't understand everything going on around him -- makes a nice parallel for his complete confusion about his own life. I've been to Japan several times and, though I don't speak the language or claim to be an expert on the culture, loved the way When You Were Here highlighted some of my favorite things about Japan, like the way traditional culture co-exists with pop culture and technology. The food. The bustle that is punctuated by pockets of peace and quiet.
The book also uses Danny's travels to highlight the fact that sometimes the people who can understand us the best are people who are nothing like us on the surface, that we are born into a family, but we can also make a family too. As Danny meets people in Japan who knew his mother -- including her doctor and a quirky girl named Kana-- he begins to understand -- and to feel understood. He begins to work through his grief. Slowly, the pieces of his life begin to fall back together. I loved that the ending of the book was hopeful and happy, yet not perfect either.
If you love books that really make you think and feel, you've got to read this one!