Thursday, February 12, 2015

Review: Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Where Things Come Back
Where Things Come Back
by John Corey Whaley
May 3, 2011
228 pages
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Contains: some strong language, sexual references
Source: Personal purchase

Just when seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter thinks he understands everything about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town, it all disappears. . . .

In the summer before Cullen's senior year, a nominally-depressed birdwatcher named John Barling thinks he spots a species of woodpecker thought to be extinct since the 1940s in Lily, Arkansas. His rediscovery of the so-called Lazarus Woodpecker sparks a flurry of press and woodpecker-mania. Soon all the kids are getting woodpecker haircuts and everyone's eating "Lazarus burgers." But as absurd as the town's carnival atmosphere has become, nothing is more startling than the realization that Cullen’s sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother Gabriel has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.

While Cullen navigates his way through a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young missionary in Africa, who has lost his faith, is searching for any semblance of meaning wherever he can find it. As distant as the two stories seem at the start, they are thoughtfully woven ever closer together and through masterful plotting, brought face to face in a surprising and harrowing climax.

Complex but truly extraordinary, tinged with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, this novel finds wonder in the ordinary and emerges as ultimately hopeful. It's about a lot more than what Cullen calls, “that damn bird.” It’s about the dream of second chances.

This was one of those books that started completely weird and confusing, with me at about the 50% point telling my husband, "I'm not sure what is going on." By about the 80% point I was starting to freak out a little wondering if I even wanted to finish. But by the end, I was like "Wow, what a great book." It was nothing I could have imagined, and yet when all the elements were put together, I was tremendously impressed.

Essentially, this is a larger story made up of converging stories, but while you're reading it you're not sure how or even why these stories would converge. Cullen is our main character, holding the main storyline, which at some point includes the reappearance of the Lazarus woodpecker and the disappearance of his brother. Then there's the story of Benton Sage, young missionary from a troubled family. That's all the detail I'm going to give, because with this story, I think it is best read for yourself.

But I will speak briefly about Cullen. He was a fascinating protagonist. He's just a regular teen, living in a small town. There was nothing overly extraordinary about him, and that's what I liked about him. There was something very compelling about his voice and views, his sincerity, his simplicity, his emotions and how they came out. I really liked him. Then add in the touching relationship between him and his brother, as well as the loveliness of his friendship with his best friend. I felt endeared to these characters and what they were going through.

I will also say that while the overall tone of the book is melancholy, there are great points of wit and humor interwoven, rounding out the feel of the book. The intensity of the situations grows steadily, even when you're not looking, and I could not put this book down. I was glued to the story. And the climax had me on the edge of my seat. The culmination of events and how Whaley wove them together was fantastic. This is one of those books I like more and more after reading it.

If you like a book with a creative mystery, tragedy and humor, engaging yet simple characters, and writing that binds you to the page until the last sentence, then I suggest giving 'Where Things Come Back' chance. I truly enjoyed this one.

4 to 4.5 STARS

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