Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley was another book that I was really lucky enough to pick up an advanced reader’s copy for at a conference last spring. It had just been published by Little and Brown, and it seemed like the title that they were really the most excited about. And I have to say, as soon as I saw the cover and read the jacket flap, I actually started to immediately recommend the book to other people, without even having opened the book and taken a look at the story. There’s this certain kind of adolescent and young adult novel that, at first look, Where Things Come Back reminded me of. It’s something that takes account of a summer where things happen, maybe not big, exciting, grandiose things, but small moments that add up to a truly well written and poignant story. I would place Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins, Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech, and Keeper by Kathi Appelt in that category. But again, it was just based on the synopsis and the cover, which, I know, is not always great to do.
Where Things Come Back takes place in small-town Lily, Arkansas, and focuses on protagonist Cullen Witter during the summer when the Lazarus woodpecker, a bird not seen since the 1940s, is spotted in the town. Cullen’s younger brother Gabriel has just gone missing, and the summer follows Cullen through his small moments of experience and the larger understanding that his brother has disappeared and isn’t likely to be found.
At the same time, Corey Whaley interweaves another narrative with Cullen’s, that of college student Benton and his roommate Cabot. This narrative focuses on a spin into religious fanaticism, and the way it influences the relationships between Benton and Cabot, and the people they love. Eventually, Corey Whaley makes these two vastly different narratives join together, resulting in an ending that is satisfying for its easy tie-up, but frustrating also because this same ease of solution.
I wasn’t just reading this ARC last spring. I was also reading Noah Barleywater Runs Away, which I had received at the same conference. And a lot of the problems that I have with Where Things Come Back were also the same ones that I had with Noah Barleywater. Corey Whaley writes very strong male characters, and his focus on friendship between these characters is one of the strongest points in the book. However, it seems to be at the expense of the female characters that he writes. There are moments where the male characters completely disregard the female ones, and their throwaway comments don’t read as subtle commentary on the difference between teenage boys and girls, but instead seem more pointed, and more sexist, when they are written. Cullen’s interactions with the girls and women in his life fall short and result in underdeveloped relationships since the characters don’t have enough dimensionality to flesh out believable connections with one another.
It was a quick read that really did immerse me as a reader right into a particular moment at a particular time in a particular summer. And I really like that. I like how a book can make a temporary world that creates its own time, language, and story to hold a reader there for the time it takes to finish. But at the same time, I couldn’t completely throw myself into the narrative, or narrative(s), because the characters aren’t very sympathetic, and I couldn’t invest in them enough to want them to succeed. Now I’m not sure I’d recommend it as much as I was doing before I even read it (which I still kind of feel bad about). But, you know, it was still a little bit worth it for that really atmospheric summer story.