TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
Author John Corey Whaley was recently honored by the National Book Foundation as one of its "5 Under 35" young fiction writers. Whaley's first novel, "Where Things Come Back," was placed on the list for my Sleepers discussion group at this year's Book Fest at Bank Street College. [Which, side note, but Book Fest is a great event, y'all. Get on the mailing list for next year!] I can honestly say I would not have read this literary teen novel if not for Book Fest; I can also say that, a full two weeks after finishing "Where Things Come Back," I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it.
In the simplest terms, we have parallel stories with different narrators and points of view. The main thread is narrated by Cullen Witter, the kind of sardonic teen we know well in the world of YA fiction. Cullen's sensitive, endearing younger brother Gabriel mysteriously vanishes one day, shortly after a phony naturalist lands in Lily, Arkansas and announces the reappearance of the long extinct Lazarus woodpecker. The second thread, told in the third person by an omniscient narrator, involves a young, overwhelmed missionary named Benton Sage and his college roommate, handsome, popular Cabot Searcy. After Benton commits suicide, Cabot becomes obsessed with Benton's diary, which leads him to researching fallen angels, reincarnation, the apocalypse, and the Book of Enoch.
Right, so simple, linear plot, huh? 😉 There is much to admire about "Where Things Come Back." Whaley is a wonderful writer, impressively melding two very different storylines into a cohesive unit while maintaining suspense and tension along the way. There are lovely characterizations here — the friendship between Cullen and his loyal, unwavering best friend Lucas is breathtaking in its depth — as well as biting commentary on media hype and social hysteria. Whaley deftly explores the wounds caused by grief, portraying both the unending desperation of pain and the stoicism of survival. Even Cullen's snarky list of possible book titles can be both wistful and incredibly funny.
Yet, despite these obvious strengths and my genuine respect for Whaley's talent, I never felt very connected to Cullen. His detached, ironic manner — and his distance from his own emotions — made it difficult for me to feel invested in his story. For me, Cullen only came alive during his interactions with Lucas, as Lucas' profound love for his friend humanized this otherwise aloof character. The story itself (a brother physically lost, a troubled man lost to his own obsessions) also failed to maintain its intensity, as long passages would pass in fantasy or intellectualism. Until its finale, when Cabot emerges as a deranged monster, I was impatiently waiting for *something* compelling to happen.
With its bland folk art cover and truly bizarre plot points, I can't imagine a teen willingly selecting this novel. I felt as if I had to slog through long portions of this book, leading me to believe that teen readers would surrender long before the conclusion. In my Book Fest discussion group, several people actually raised the question of whether "Where Things Come Back" is even a teen book at all and, instead, perhaps an adult novel featuring teenage characters. Maybe this was my main issue, that this otherwise worthy novel is simply aimed at the wrong audience?
If you read "Where Things Come Back," please know it is most definitely not intended for very young readers. There are casual references to drinking, drug use, and sex, and Cullen (like many teenagers) regularly uses profanity in his daily dialogue. "Where Things Come Back" is out now. Hopefully you'll enjoy it more than I did.