Book Review: When You Were Here

Book Review: When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney

When You Were HereThe death of a parent hits hard in this moving young adult novel by Daisy Whitney. Danny Kellerman, high school senior and class valedictorian, watched his mother slip away from him after a five-year battle with cancer. Despite telling Danny that she was holding on for his graduation, she passed away two months before the big event, and Danny has been walking through life in a fog ever since. He’s financially well-provided for, but that’s about the only thing going right for him. Danny’s father died in a sudden accident years earlier, and his older sister Laini walked away from the family soon after that. Even the love of Danny’s life, girl-next-door Holland who promised to love him forever, dumped him abruptly a month after she started college. Danny’s only source of comfort is his loyal dog Sandy Koufax, but it’s not enough. After blowing up on stage at graduation, smashing a car, and watching his friends celebrate life while he views it all from a haze of numbness, Danny knows something has to give. When he receives a letter from the caretaker of his family’s Tokyo apartment, hinting at a secret life his mother lived during trips to Japan for medical treatments, Danny decides that a summer in Tokyo might be just what he needs to get himself back on track and figure out what he has left.

Secrets abound in Tokyo. Why did everyone who encountered his mom remember her as being so happy? What did the mysterious doctor prescribe for her that gave her so much hope? And why, once he arrives in Tokyo, does Danny keep uncovering bits and pieces of his mom’s life there that make no sense to him?

As Danny explains to Kana, the girl who seems to have insight into his mother’s time in Japan:

“And I guess, most of all, I want to understand why nothing’s working for me. Why she was the happy one when she was dying, and I just can’t seem to manage anything when I’m living.”

When You Were Here is less about death and dying than about life and living. I found it very sad to read about Danny’s pain and loneliness — and yet I was also filled with admiration for this boy who held his home together while the most important person in his life was suffering. Danny makes no pretense about his love for his mother, and yes, the circumstances are extraordinary (how many teen-aged boys take their mothers to chemo treatments and clean up when they’re sick?), but it’s still quite touching to read his unembarrassed statements about her role in his life.

Likewise, Danny’s love for Holland is strong and true , despite the pain he experiences over what he sees as her desertion. Again, he is refreshingly honest about his feelings when it comes to Holland, and that’s a nice treat in a book about a boy of that age.

I did feel that the book veered a bit close to preachiness in parts, as Danny comes to certain realizations about his mother. The takeaway message that gets hammered home is that what counts is how you live your life, not how long you live, and that we need to find happiness in our small moments rather than focus on sorrow. That’s valid, but at times it did feel a bit heavy-handed.

That’s a minor quibble, however. Ultimately, by digging into his mother’s secrets, Danny is able to reconnect with feeling — feeling anything, both joy and sadness — rather than walking through life numb and alone. As Danny opens himself back up to emotions, he makes important discoveries about his mother, his sister, Holland, and himself, and finds a path forward past mourning and into a new future for himself.

When You Were Here is not a long book, but it is lovingly written and full of honesty and depth. Danny is a smart, likeable character, and it’s hard not to ache for him as we read about how much he’s already had to go through at such a young age. When You Were Here presents a portrait of a teen in a unique situation, and shows the power of love in all its varieties and shades to heal unfathomable hurts and to forge connections that might seem impossible. Don’t miss it.

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The details:

Title: When You Were Here
Author: Daisy Whitney
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: June 2013
Genre: Young Adult
Source: Won in a giveaway! (with thanks to The Perpetual Page-Turner)

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