Book Review: When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney

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“When someone you love has died, there is a certain grace period during which you can get away with murder.  Not literal murder, but pretty much anything else.”

I’ve never lost someone close to me to cancer.  Most of my loved ones who have passed have been from the older generation (great aunts, grandparents, etc.).  In this respect, I count myself very lucky.

The aching reality is that so many of our teens are living with cancer, living with a parent who has cancer, or living with the loss of someone close to them to cancer.  In 2012, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars beautifully portrays two teens whose friendship-turned-romance strives to overcome the daily battle of cancer remission and regression.  Augustus and Hazel bring lighthearted quip and literary banter into a very serious and sad scenario:  two teens living with cancer and falling in love.

But, this review isn’t about The Fault in Our Stars.  Daisy Whitney (The Mockingbirds) has crafted her own lovely story of Danny, a California teen who has lost his dad to a tragic accident and his mother to cancer.  This is not just another “cancer book.” 

 When You Were Here (Little Brown, June 2013) is a travelogue that takes its reader on a physical journey to Japan where we become part of Danny’s emotional and spiritual journey of healing.

The book came to me after Whitney posted on her Facebook wall that she had ARCs of her soon-to-be-released new novel.  It arrived a few weeks later with a hand-written note from Daisy and an address for an Enlish teacher in Oregon who I was to send the book on to when I was finished. 
When we first meet Danny, he is a surly, destructive, impulsive teenager immediately following his high school graduation where he gave the (shocking) valedictorian address.  He slams into cars parked on his street, destroys rare hand-crafted guitars, throws raucous parties, and closes himself to those who try to reach out to him.  Holland, Danny’s ex-girlfriend who dumped him several months earlier while away at college, enters the scene with a gentle understanding, lingering patiently in the background, taking his verbal blows in stride and re-appearing just as Danny seems to be about ready to let her go.

Danny’s journey begins when a letter arrives from Japan offering condolences and seeking guidance in removing and disposing of Danny’s mother’s medications from their Tokyo apartment. A seed is planted, and he embarks on aquest to unravel the mystery of his mother’s rapid decline and confront the man who was her last hope and healer.

I thoroughly enjoyed how Tokyo and its diverse neighborhoods and occupants portrayed the dynamic intersection of Western high-tech influences (i.e., robot-manned ice cream stands) and ancient Eastern philosophy and spiritualism (a temple made famous for its healing tea).  Quirky Kana embodies this with her Harajuku-style and Buddhist spiritualism.  Kana becomes Dana’s spiritual guide and companion.

This story is about death and love, true, but for me it is about the intersection of the two–healing.  How do we heal the rift in our hearts, souls, and minds when we lose a loved one either to death or parting?  How can two people help to facilitate that healing process when loss can become a major barrier between them?

I’m having a hard time letting go of Danny.  Since I finished it, there have been several moments each day when I want to reach for When You Were Here to pass it on to a colleague or student who I know needs it.  Those are the special books; the ones that will always be in circulation; the ones students come back and whisper to me how much it meant to them–and this one will definitely secure a place on that list.

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