Thursday, January 08, 2015

Review: When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney

Title: When You Were Here
Author: Daisy Whitney
Publisher: Little, Brown for Young Readers
Release date: June 4th 2013
Pages: 272
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: Bought
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Danny'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 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.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a really hard one to rate. I absolutely loved most parts of this story and these characters, and it's definitely an emotional read. But at the same time there were some small things that really didn't work, and they bothered me so much that I focused more on those than on the actual story at times. It's the kind of book where I could write either a 2-star or a 5-star review and justify it without being untruthful.

So let's talk about the good first. Most of the characters in When You Were Here are really good. Danny is an authentic male narrator with a strong voice, and I really enjoyed reading from his perspective. The whole family dynamic is original and really well-done. I loved the relationship between Danny and his mother, which really drove the whole story. (Even though I found parts of it to be a bit melodramatic, which I'll talk about later.) I also really enjoyed the character of Liani, Danny's estranged sister - the dynamics and the history of that relationship were really interesting to read about. And my favorite character would have to be Kana, the eccentric Japanese girl showing Danny around. I was totally expecting her to be another manic pixie dream girl, which would have killed it for me, but she isn't. She definitely has MPDGesque qualities, but she also has her own motivations and backstory that make her a real person. What really made me love her is how Kana's and Danny's relationship is entirely platonic; I was expecting this to be yet another love triangle, but I'm so glad Daisy Whitney didn't go down that route because I think it's really important that a YA book, for once, explores a platonic friendship between a male and a female character. I really loved the characters and the directions this story went in, especially in how many emotions this story conveys.

But then there were these little things that kept preventing me from really loving this book. One thing that bothered me is how much money all of these characters seem to have. Danny's mom retired early to become a full-time cancer treatment patient, and she flies from LA to Tokyo once a month for her treatment. They have a mansion in LA and an apartment that comes with its own manager in Tokyo. Danny, and Holland too, have the money to hop on intercontinental flights at a moment's notice, and he even has his dog flown to Tokyo on a private jet. Both Danny's mom and Kate have ridiculous amounts of money from really random-sounding jobs. Of course the fact that the characters have money doesn't make this a bad book, but it bothered me how this privilege is never acknowledged - how Danny's mom's struggle with cancer could have been very different if they didn't have these sorts of money, and how everyone they interact with seems to have more than enough money. How this is never even addressed just kind of bugged me.

I also found some of Danny's experiences in Japan kind of unrealistic. Everyone there seems to speak perfect English - not a single mistake or even mentioning of an accent. If this were only true for Kana, I could see that because it fits her character (even though she would still be making some mistakes), but every single random person Danny talks to speaks this perfect English. The only person who doesn't speak perfect English is Kana's mom, who has Kana handle the communications part of her real estate business because she speaks better English. But really, Kana's mom's English is really good, and she would probably be considered to be among the people with above-average English skills, so the fact that she has her daughter speak to her clients for her seemed sort of constructed just to create Kana's character.

Even though I liked most of the characters, it bothered me how much some of them were idealized. I get that, to some extent, it makes sense for Danny and those around him to idealize the memory of his mother, but it seemed a bit overdone. Every  person whose store she shopped at or restaurant she ate at seems to remember her perfectly and talks about how much they loved her, which just seemed like too much to me. Holland, too, is described as way too perfect; again, it kind of makes sense because it's Danny's perspective, but I wish she had some kind of flaw to make her more realistic. (I don't count her secret as a flaw because that whole storyline seemed kind of contrived to me, too.) And to a lesser extent, this also applies to Sandy Koufax, Danny's dog - I know a lot of people thought he was the cutest (because he was described to be the perfect dog), but it felt kind of forced to me; I'm just not a huge fan of authors using pets for automatic cuteness points. And to go along with this idealization, I also didn't like the whole pain killer storyline: at the beginning of the novel, Danny is popping pain killers like nothing in order to cope with what's going on in his life. Once he's happy at the end of the novel, he simply throws them all away and is done with them, with no mention of addiction or any following complications. I just wasn't a fan of how this novel idealized some of the characters and storylines and brushes over the complexities of these storylines and relationships.

I feel like this review is going to sound a lot more negative than positive, but that's just because I'm better at complaining than I am at explaining what I liked. Yes, the little things bothered me, and I couldn't write this review without mentioning them, but I did still really enjoy this novel. Regardless of the little stuff, I really enjoyed the message and the emotions this novel conveys; I mean, I cried, and I don't think a crappy book can really make you cry. So I do recommend When You Were Here for its central storyline and emotions; just don't expect too much from the logic or from how well the complexities of some smaller storylines are explored.  


  1. I've been going back & forth about reading this one. You're review actually pushes me to the read side. As long as I know some of the flaws going in I can be prepared instead of distracted.

    Karen @ For What It's Worth


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