For the last year, Penna’s whole life has been her boyfriend David. Now he’s gone off to fight in Iraq, and she’s left alone in their small Oklahoma town with very little to distract her. She throws herself into work and her art, and it isn’t long before she starts to make friends and discover more about her own family. But she can’t stop thinking about the hole inside her that only David can fill. When he stops writing, things get worse. She knows he loves her, but when will he be back? And will he still be the same boy she knew?
Karen Schreck’s novel is part of the burgeoning genre of literature about the Iraq war. These novels aim to examine all aspects of it. Schreck’s novel attempts to portray young love separated by more than just distance, and what happens in the in between. Unfortunately, Schreck’s novel fell way short for me as a reader. Although there’s a lot of promise here, slow plotting and awkward prose made it difficult to slog through this one.
The first third of the novel focuses on Penna’s inability to think of anything except David. Her world is so insular that the reader begins to feel claustrophobic. This is intentional–it’s clear that Schreck means for this to happen–but Penna’s obsession with her boyfriend and her slow evolution into the real world is about as pleasant as nails on a chalkboard. There’s nothing interesting enough about Penna–nor remarkable enough about David–to hold the reader’s interest. Things pick up once both characters become more enmeshed in their immediate surroundings, but it was too late for me.
Schreck’s characterization is pretty good, all things considered. She manages to create vivid female characters representing three generations of Penna’s family. Some of Penna’s coworkers are quirky and interesting, but they aren’t given enough page time to warrant a real connection with readers. A strong setting helps make up for the fact that there isn’t much happening in the plot.
All that being said, there are readers for this book. Teens looking for a story about an already-established relationship might like this one. It might work especially well for teens who know someone who has been deployed. It’s a slow read despite its relatively short length, though, and probably won’t work for reluctant readers.
While He Was Away by Karen Schreck. Sourcebooks Fire: 2012. Library copy.