John Corey Whaley has a touch of John Green about him: hugely talented (and handsome) young male author who has incredible insight into modern teenagehood. His debut novel was one of the most highly touted and decorated books of 2011, winning both the Printz and The William C. Morris, in addition to gracing many other shortlists. It has been on my list for a long time and I finally picked it up at the lovely Woozles Bookstore when I was in Halifax a few weeks back.
Cullen Witter is in the middle of a boring summer in his boring town until two incredible things happen: his beloved brother Gabriel vanishes without a trace, and the long-time love of his life takes interest in him. Both of these things are way more important to him than the ridiculous and out of control woodpecker fever that has taken over his town after someone claims to have spotted a supposedly extinct breed flying around the local woods.
Interspersed with this narrative are chapters about a young missionary, his college roommate, and Alma, the girl Cullen’s well-meaning friends set him up with to shake him out of his doldrums. These seemingly unrelated chapters start to build up a complex and shattering backstory that fills the reader will a sense of impending doom. This narrative strain is what made the novel for me. It should have been too farfetched to work, but somehow Whaley makes it happen.
I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary literary YA lately and the truth is they are starting to feel just as formulaic as genre YA, only with different tropes and cadences. I haven’t decided if this is a bad thing. On one hand, it is the promise of these elements that make me pick up a book. But when the novels start to blend together in my head or the story feels vaguely familiar I wonder, am I reading too many similar novels, or is contemporary literary YA just becoming too similar?
The elements in question are all here: first person narration; short-ish chapters that tend to end with a zinger of a one-liner; small town setting; smart kid who wants out of said small town; hot dusty summer; first love (and usually, first sexual experience); tragedy; quirky side character. All of this aside, Whaley takes this formula and creates an excellent novel. He handles what could be an unwieldy story with aplomb; the narrative is succinct and impactful. I love Cullen’s restraint and silent disdain for his hometown. He is a smart narrator with moments of exquisite vulnerability.
Upon discussion with YA connoisseur and good friend Liza (who first recommended the book to me), I discovered that people have been interpreting the ending totally differently from me. This made me like the book even more. I won’t spoil it here, but if you’ve read it, let’s talk about it in the comments below. I’m dying to know if anyone else had the same interpretation as I did. Fans of Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone, The Miseducation of Cameron Post and John Green’s entire backlist will enjoy this truly accomplished novel.
Where Things Come Back is available now in paperback from Simon and Schuster Canada.