Book Review: See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles

Fern is twelve and feels invisible in her big, messy family.  Her mom helps her dad run the family restaurant, her older sister Sara is taking a gap year before college, her brother Holden is struggling with the fact that everyone is ignoring the fact he knows he’s gay, and her little brother Charlie seems to be the center of attention, always.  Charlie loves Fern, but he clings and is always gets in her way.  All of this, and Fern’s trying to navigate middle school, too.  Her best friend Ran is her only sanity.  Then something really tragic happens, and Fern’s world is forever altered.  She’ll never be the same, and neither will anyone else.

This is a sad, sad book.  I cried while reading it–ugly cried, with gasping sobs and a runny nose.  At one point, I had to put it down and call my mom just to provide a break for my brain.  But even then, all I could do was gasp out how good the book was, how beautiful and sad and perfect it was.  This is a memorable book full of grief and loss but also hope.  It’s gorgeous.

All of the children in Fern’s family are named after literary characters, and this is just the tip of the kind of detail and care Knowles gives her characters.  Everyone in the novel is well-developed, flawed, and very human.  This is especially true in the case of Fern, whose twelve-year-old voice is absolutely perfect and completely authentic.  Fern navigates her grief and her thoughts about the world around her in an incredibly accessible way.  Readers will warm to her and her messy family immediately, which is necessary for the plot that Knowles then unfolds.

This is a book about terrible tragedy and grief and loss.  It is about growing up and the pains that come along with that process.  It’s about all kinds of love.  Knowles manages to tackle all of these things with grace and sensitivity.  Although the book could easily fall prey to becoming overly maudlin, it never does.  It’s a tear-jerker, to be sure, but it’s never overly manipulative.

This is a standout read of the year, and one you should seek out if you haven’t done so already.  It’s definitely one of my favorite books of the year.  Highly, highly recommended.

See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles. Candlewick: 2012. Library copy.

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