When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney
Published: June 4th 2013 by Little, Brown
Source: ARC from publisher
Synopsis (Goodreads): Filled with humor, raw emotion, a strong voice, and a brilliant dog named Sandy Koufax, When You Were Here explores the two most powerful forces known to man-death and love. Daisy Whitney brings her characters to life with a deft touch and resonating authenticity.
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 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.
I am not and never will be a teenage boy, but I still like reading books from their perspective. Whitney has given Danny a very touching, sentimental voice that makes him absolutely endearing. He’s a young man who has experienced a great deal of loss and is struggling with how to move forward with his own life and deal with his grief.
The story follows two threads. Danny is heartbroken over the way his relationship with childhood friend and first love, Holland, ended when she broke up with him without explanation while she was away at college Danny’s senior year of high school. He’s also trying to come to terms with his mother’s death after a long battle with cancer and understand what course her treatment took while she was in Japan. Both are compelling journeys, and culminate when a secret is revealed. I have to admit that although I saw the tiny clues in retrospect, I never expected what was coming.
A secondary subplot involves Danny’s (adopted) older sister who has effectively abandoned the family in order to seek her cultural roots by moving back to China to pursue her studies. Their history and reconciliation added another layer to the book that I appreciated.
I really enjoyed the contemporary Tokyo setting, which is something I haven’t seen in a YA novel. My favorite scenes involved Danny exploring the city with his new friend Kana. The sights and smells of Tokyo came alive on the page.
As much as I liked Danny, I couldn’t stop thinking about his level of privilege. While it doesn’t diminish the loss he felt at losing his father and then his mother, I had trouble relating to him because the loss didn’t have the same consequences it would have had he not inherited millions as a result. He’s flying last minute to Japan to decide if he should keep the family’s second home rather than losing his only home, as many less fortunate teenagers in his position would be doing. While I understand this isn’t a critique of the writing, I had a similar reaction to the one Amanda Nelson describes in this piece at Book Riot (though my sort of judgement is about fiction, not a memoir). Privilege doesn’t negate the experiences of the protagonist, but it does effect how I empathize with him.
One detail of the story did give me a bit of pause. Danny is in a friends-with-benefits type relationship with a doctor in residency at the beginning of the story, and through her he gets access to prescription pain pills. At the end of the story, Danny decides he’s “ready to live life again” and just decides not to continue taking them. Anyone knows someone who has developed a dependency on narcotic pain medication knows that giving it up is not that simple. This detail didn’t really add to the story in my opinion, and if the author and editor determined it was an important detail, I wish it had been given more weight or handled in a more realistic manner.
I wasn’t surprised to read in the acknowledgements that Whitney was very much inspired to write this book after reading Where She Went by Gayle Forman. While the tone and style is very much the same, I can’t say that When You Were Here had the same kind of emotional effect on me. The story didn’t have the same depth and the way the past was woven into the present narrative was less skillful.
Childhood friends to lovers is my favorite romantic trope, and I would have liked to see more details about Holland and Danny’s relationship growing up. The small anecdotes readers get in the story seem typical rather than unique and memorable.
Ultimately, When You Were Here is a solid contemporary that deals with grief and loss. While perhaps not my favorite book that deals with these sticky subjects, I’ll still recommend it to readers looking for an emotional story with a hopeful ending.
Recommended for fans of:
Where She Went by Gayle Forman (my review)
How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr (my review)
JIllian Heisie for Nerdy Book Club: “First Thoughts: When You Were Here is an achingly, heartbreakingly, healingly incredible novel. It ripped me apart and stitched me back together one small piece/scene/conversation at a time.”
Keertana at Ivy Book Bindings: “Still, the fact remains that, in the end, When You Were Here didn’t do a whole lot for me. It was a quick and memorable read, one that managed to pack a punch in its short pages, but sadly not enough of a punch.”
Magan at Rather Be Reading: “When You Were Here was full of absolutely all of my favorite things — a deep, emotional story, shocking twists and turns that left me needing to collect my thoughts, and a journey to a new place that made me want to catch the first flight to Tokyo.”