Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley – REVIEW

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley
Release Date: May 3rd, 2011
Simon & Schuster, 228 Pages
Sub-genre: Contemporary
Source: Bought in Hardback
Age Group: Young Adult
Recommended for: fans of Looking for Alaska by John Green

Just when seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter thinks he understands everything about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town, it all disappears. . . .

In the summer before Cullen’s senior year, a nominally-depressed birdwatcher named John Barling thinks he spots a species of woodpecker thought to be extinct since the 1940s in Lily, Arkansas. His rediscovery of the so-called Lazarus Woodpecker sparks a flurry of press and woodpecker-mania. Soon all the kids are getting woodpecker haircuts and everyone’s eating “Lazarus burgers.” But as absurd as the town’s carnival atmosphere has become, nothing is more startling than the realization that Cullen’s sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother Gabriel has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.

While Cullen navigates his way through a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young missionary in Africa, who has lost his faith, is searching for any semblance of meaning wherever he can find it. As distant as the two stories seem at the start, they are thoughtfully woven ever closer together and through masterful plotting, brought face to face in a surprising and harrowing climax.

Complex but truly extraordinary, tinged with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, this novel finds wonder in the ordinary and emerges as ultimately hopeful. It’s about a lot more than what Cullen calls, “that damn bird.” It’s about the dream of second chances.

This was one of the best debut contemporary novels I have ever read.

For the most part, this book is about Cullen; how he’s feeling about “that damn bird”, the loss of his brother, and his overall life. John Corey Whaley seems to have this uncanny knack for being able to have Cullen talk about himself in third person without seeming like a total douche. In fact, I found it rather charming the way he always said stuff like “When one sees..”. So strangely, even though this book is written in first person and felt personal, it was still more like a story being told to the reader – like the use of full names for people who are Cullen’s best friends. Maybe it’s because Cullen doesn’t like to let anyone in, including himself? I’m still not even sure how Mr. Whaley (do his students call him this, I wonder) managed to do this. But I absolutely loved it.

There is also another story going on simultaneously; outside of Cullen’s life. And this, at the beginning of the novel, confused the heck outta me. It is the story of a college aged missionary and how he affects his college roommate. I was thinking to myself, “What the heck does this have to do with Cullen?” And about 85% of the way through the novel, I gave a BIG pat on the back to John Corey Whaley. Yes, these two stories do, in fact, have to do with each other.

Some other things that I loved about this book: The ridiculous accuracy of what it’s like to grow up in a small southern town. (I’m from North Carolina and so I know what this is all about.) and the theme of second chances. (I appreciate the title of this book so much more now that I’ve read it.)

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