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Review: When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney

when youDanny’s mother lost her five-year battle with cancer three weeks before his graduation-the one day that she was hanging on to see.

Now Danny is left alone, with only his memories, his dog, and his heart-breaking ex-girlfriend for company. He doesn’t know how to figure out what to do with her estate, what to say for his Valedictorian speech, let alone how to live or be happy anymore.

When he gets a letter from his mom’s property manager in Tokyo, where she had been going for treatment, it shows a side of his mother he never knew. So, with no other sense of direction, Danny travels to Tokyo to connect with his mother’s memory and make sense of her final months, which seemed filled with more joy than Danny ever knew. There, among the cherry blossoms, temples, and crowds, and with the help of an almost-but-definitely-not Harajuku girl, he begins to see how it may not have been ancient magic or mystical treatment that kept his mother going. Perhaps, the secret of how to live lies in how she died.

So, this was a great book to read – and pretty much hell to review. Let’s be clear – the book was a great read for me … it was personal things that got in the way of this review being written in a timely manner. Turns out that sitting down to review a book about a guy who has recently lost a parent is not such a great idea within the first week of losing your own father. Yep. Not at all. That’s meant that this has been sitting on the “I’ll get back to you shelf for a bit”, but the kicker is, as I mentioned previously, I really, really liked it. Hence … the review. Take it for what it is, kids, and enjoy.

Danny is at a crossroads in his life. He’s finished high school and is looking ahead to college and all that it entails, but at the same time he is still reeling from the loss of his mother – his only parent – just three weeks before graduation. To say that he’s carrying a heavy load is an understatement. It’s not that he doesn’t have support – his mom’s best friend Kate is looking out for him, and he still has his dog, Sandy Koufax (winner, by the way, of the ‘best dog in literature’ prize this year).  At the same time, Kate is also the mother of his ex-girlfriend – the girl who broke his heart – and he’s at loose ends with his friends drifting off and starting the next chapter of their own lives. He’s not entirely sure where’s he’s at during the beginning chapters of this book, and his struggle makes him a deeply sympathetic character.

Unable to cope with the immediacy of life in LA and his move to UCLA in the fall, Danny decides to travel to Tokyo to stay at the family’s apartment for a few months. As we learn more about Danny and his relationship with his family —- his father, lost to a sudden car accident years before, his sister, who has chosen to disassociate herself from her adoptive family, and now his mother — we begin to realize alongside Danny that every family has secrets, and we only have one side of the story at any given time.

The story is told in first-person, and as a result, our knowledge and impressions are those of Danny himself, and this is not a bad thing. When I began this book, I was afraid that Danny would be another stereotypical YA male protagonist – more than a little self-absorbed, using sarcasm as a personality trait, etc., and it was a happy surprise to find a deeply emotional and somewhat flawed young man at the heart of this story. His grief is authentic and heartbreaking, and his reactions are completely in line with the person Whitney makes him out to be within the story. There is anger and emotion and sadness in his thoughts, and he is not afraid to express that. He is looking to feel something again beyond pain, and it takes the move to Tokyo to begin his healing process.

I found that both Danny and the story began to evolve rapidly once he landed in Tokyo. At the same time, the portrayal of life in Tokyo was a joy unto itself. This is not a travelogue, or a tick list of ‘things to do and mention about Tokyo’; instead, the city is vibrantly portrayed as another character in Danny’s life. His interactions and daily rhythms make sense within the story’s context. A trip to the local noodle bar for breakfast is as natural as a trip to Starbucks in any other story, and this allows the reader to view his settling into life in the city as part of Danny’s healing process rather than just another plot twist. I loved how comfortable he was upon his return to Tokyo, and how it suited him so much more than his “regular” life back in LA.

Every family has its secrets and every person in a family has their own story to tell. Danny, by virtue of being the youngest, is struggling to learn these stories without the benefit of a family guide. In lieu of these relationships, Danny has Kana and her mother, who not only care for the apartment in Tokyo, but also cared for Danny’s mother during her final months with cancer. The relationship between Danny and Kana was a carefully nuanced connection that was part friend, part sister/brother, and it spoke volumes about Danny as a protagonist to see how he related to Kana and her mother. It was also really interesting to read about Kana’s struggles, and how her situation as a child of a single parent in Japan had impacted her life.

“I like her teasing, her hissing, her wise old soul. I like the way I feel as if I’ve known her my whole life and the way I feel steady with her. Most of all, I like that I feel alive, I feel good, I feel that thing my mom was said to have felt – happy – for more than just a few seconds at a time.” ~ When You Were Here

Danny’s relationship with Holland is more complex, and at first I wasn’t buying into it. {minor spoiler here} That said, by giving Danny time to come to terms with the new information he learns about his mother, he is then able to face the truth about his past relationship, and Holland’s arrival in Tokyo is paced to happen at the right time in Danny’s character arc. I also gained a greater appreciation for Holland because of this, and can see the conflict and grief she held within herself with greater sympathy. I appreciated that not everything has a ‘happily ever after’ ending, and that there are still obvious struggles for Danny after the end of the book. Grief isn’t something that wraps up neatly in a bow, and it is something that his character will continue to struggle to accept.

I didn’t expect to fall as deeply into this book as I did, and it’s a testament to the author’s character skills and world building that I connected so well to Danny and to Kana. This is a wonderful story of grief and loss and growing up, and accepting that the people we love are more than just who we think they are. This was a fantastic read, and I can’t wait to recommend it to others.

When You Were Here is published by Little, Brown Books and was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. When You Were Here may be purchased at Indigo, Amazon and your friendly indie bookseller. ISBN:9780316209748, 272 pages.

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2 Responses »

  1. Sorry to hear of your loss and I can imagine it wasn’t easy to review this as it might have been, had not your own emotions been so raw. Sounds like a great book and you’ve written an excellent review of it.


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