books and reading · reviews

Book Review: When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney

Danny’s mom died after a years-long battle with cancer right before he graduated from high school.  It was the event that she was hanging on to see.  Now he’s left alone, in a big house with his faithful dog and memories of the way his family used to be.  He’s unsure what to do with the estate his mom has left, and then he gets a letter from the property manager in Tokyo, and Danny is stunned by the letter’s revelations about how happy his mother was in her final days while in Tokyo.  Danny decides to go to Tokyo and try to find peace in his mother’s death, as well as answer the lingering questions he has about how she lived her life.

Daisy Whitney’s moving, authentic novel about the loss of a parent is a standout of a novel.  Contemplative, and often quite quiet, the novel tackles all sorts of issues, including death, loss, grief, transracial adoption, drug abuse, and growing up.  If this sounds like too much, rest assured that it’s handled gracefully, and the issues never overwhelm the narrative, which stays strongly focused on Danny’s attempts to heal.  There’s some expert balance here, and it pays off.

It helps that Danny’s voice is achingly authentic.  Whitney nails the male voice here, and Danny’s emptiness at the beginning of the novel is absolutely palpable. He’s angry but also feels nearly nothing, and Whitney doesn’t shy away from that.  She allows Danny to feel what he does, and she doesn’t cast judgment on him as he self-medicates with pain killers.  His slow evolution to healing is masterfully done.

The overarching theme of this novel is love, and readers get it in spades from Danny when he thinks about his mom.  Readers also get it from the supporting characters when they talk about Danny’s mom with him.  This was a woman who loved her children fiercely, and that love is clearly on display throughout the book, despite her absence from the pages.  Whitney takes real care with her characters, and it shows.

It helps that Kana’s spunk balances out Danny’s morose outlook.  Once he hooks up with the plucky teen in Tokyo, the story really takes off, allowing the reader access to a very foreign culture.  Their dynamic is great, and Kana is a well-rounded secondary character it’s impossible not to love.  The characters are ultimately what drive this story, and they drive it well.

A refreshing look at a boy’s love for his mother, this one is not to be missed.

When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney. Little, Brown: 2013.

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