Thursday, September 17, 2015

Review: Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Title: Where Things Come Back
Author: John Corey Whaley
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Publication date: January 1, 2011
Rating: ★★½

Summary (via Goodreads):

In the remarkable, bizarre, and heart-wrenching summer before Cullen Witter’s senior year of high school, he is forced to examine everything he thinks he understands about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town. His cousin overdoses; his town becomes absurdly obsessed with the alleged reappearance of an extinct woodpecker; and most troubling of all, his sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother, Gabriel, suddenly and inexplicably disappears.

Meanwhile, the crisis of faith spawned by a young missionary’s disillusion in Africa prompts a frantic search for meaning that has far-reaching consequences. As distant as the two stories initially seem, they are woven together through masterful plotting and merge in a surprising and harrowing climax.

Confession: The only reason I was ever remotely interested in this book is because it was inspired by Sufjan Steven's song for the lord god bird, an ivory-billed woodpecker that was rediscovered in Brinkley, Arkansas, in the mid 2000s. I loved that song when it was first released, and when I heard in 2011 that some guy had written a book inspired by it, my attention was piqued.

Where Things Come Back is a slow story. It feels like being outside on a hot summer day: sluggish, dull, you'd rather be anywhere else. There are a few key story lines that weave in and out of the book, and it makes your head spin, trying to figure out how everything comes together. The build-up is tiresome. It moves forward at a snail's pace and the different stories really only gel in the last few pages.

For me, one of the most difficult things about reading this book was that, intentionally or not, Cullen Witter is a condescending asshole. I think he's meant to be witty and clever and sharp-tongued, but he just comes across as a judgmental, pretentious 16-year-old boy with some internalized girl hate that stems from his own insecurity. (Okay, maybe I'm reading into things. My point is that I didn't enjoy reading this book from his perspective.)

The other characters were just not that interesting to me either. I think they could have been. I think if John Corey Whaley had tightened up the story and made all those characters (Ada, Mena, Benton, Cabot – even his brother Gabriel) more relevant, instead of having them pop in and out for no particular reason, I might have enjoyed this book. But that would have been a different book entirely. This story really lacks meaningful character development, so up until the last twenty pages or so, we're just wandering around, feeling like nothing is happening. That, paired with Whaley's writing – which often seems like it's trying hard to be quirky and different – makes the entire story feel stilted.

Where Things Come Back was just not the right book for me. But for what it's worth, it won the William C. Morris YA Debut Award AND the Printz Award in 2012, so clearly others enjoyed it.

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