Title: Where Things Come Back
Author: John Corey Whaley
Summary: In the remarkable, bizarre, and heart-wrenching summer before Cullen Witter’s senior year of high school, everything he thinks he understands about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town vanishes. His cousin overdoses; his town becomes absurdly obsessed with the alleged reappearance of an extinct woodpecker; and, most troubling of all, his sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother, Gabriel, suddenly and inexplicably disappears.
As Cullen navigates a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young, disillusioned missionary in Africa searches for meaning wherever he can find it. And when those two stories collide, a surprising and harrowing climax emerges that is tinged with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, and above all, hope.
Sometimes, when I read young adult titles, I have trouble pinpointing exactly what makes the story so meh for me. Is it the often shortened length, which usually prohibits an in-depth plot from developing? Is it the age of the book’s main character, who, by and large, is between fifteen and eighteen? Is it the fact that a teen living with his or her parents, in school full time, and generally “taken care of” fails to rouse my Interesting Fiction flags? Because, for the past couple of years, I just haven’t been feeling YA titles. Somewhere along the line, I passed the point at which I could relate to a teenager, no matter how unnormal or fantastical their circumstances.
So… there was nothing inherently wrong or bad about John Corey Whaley’s novel about the summer seventeen-year-old Cullen’s brother, Gabriel, disappears; it just wasn’t for me. Whaley’s introduction of threading plot lines and a narrative goal had me hooked enough to keep reading, but, once I was finished, that same plot didn’t really amount to much. Maybe it was just that I needed an answer to my question of how Benton, the aforementioned “young, disillusioned missionary in Africa” fit into the puzzle that included Benton’s college roommate Cabot, Cullen’s fling Alma, and, ultimately, Gabriel. (I mean, you don’t give somebody their own chapters for nothing.) And once I got the answer, well, great. Mission accomplished.
Because, basically, my interest peaked there, right at the moment we figure out when and how Gabriel goes missing. The ongoing B-plot involving John Barling and an extinct (or is it???) woodpecker failed in its attempt to enhance the plot or provide a substantial metaphorical backbone. The eventual resolution proved that, even though stuff happened, it kind of felt that nothing did.