Review: Where Things Come Back

The small, sleepy southern town of Lily, Arkansas goes into a frenzy when a birdwatcher thinks he spots a Lazarus Woodpecker, a species thought to be extinct. (“Lily is the kind of place you’d like to move to some short time before you die. If at any other time in your life you think you need the peace and quiet of Lily, Arkansas, then you should either see a therapist or stay there for a week and try to find anything half-entertaining to do.”) The town of Lily is, in some ways, reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird’s Maycomb–the books’ connections extend beyond their ornithological references. The townspeople could all use a little hope; they thrive on the belief that something once thought dead might be resurrected.

Seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter wasn’t a huge fan of his hometown before the alleged Lazarus sighting, but the media circus and renaming of town businesses only serves to further his cynicism. Woodpecker haircuts and Lazarus burgers don’t thrill Cullen, who spends much of his time imagining a future away from Lily or lost in fantasies of zombies, book titles, and recollections of his experiences as an observer rather than a participant. Cullen is snarky and fearful of ending up another victim to Lily’s black hole (“People dreamed. People left. And they all came back. It was like Arkansas’s version of a black hole; nothing could escape it….”), but ultimately likable and optimistic (“I can’t seem to be a pessimist long enough to overlook the possibility of things being overwhelmingly good.”)

Around the same time, Benton Sage is serving as a missionary in Africa. Benton has always wanted to spread his faith, but finds that missionary work is more about filling peoples’ stomachs with food than filling their minds with preaching. He returns home a disappointment to his church and his family, and enrolls in college where he hopes to enrich himself in other ways. Benton rooms with Cabot Searcy, who, in the wake of a tragedy, takes up Benton’s religious fanaticism with extreme fervor. (“He had taken Benton’s notes and not blown them out of proportion so much as he had strapped an atom bomb to every letter of every word.”)

When Cullen’s idealistic, precocious brother Gabriel goes missing, these two seemingly unconnected worlds become tied together in ways that will keep you guessing until the very last page. John Corey Whaley is a master weaver, pulling threads in and out, over and under, until in the end each colorful thread comes together to create a gorgeous picture. Where Things Come Back is literary YA at its finest; it is a story that feels timeless and has all the makings of a classic-to-be. My copy of the text looks like a post-it note convention. Whaley’s language is quiet and subtly beautiful; this is not a flashy book, but it is one that slowly builds and keeps you thinking. The concluding pages left me awestruck and speechless. Though the suspense will be gone, I know this is a book that I will want to revisit.

Where Things Come Back has not been a topic of much blogger discussion as far as I can tell, but its accolades are numerous and well-deserved. Whenever people ask me for book recommendations these days, this is the book I try to convince them to read (despite its difficult to summarize plot). If you, like the people of Lily, need a little hope for a second chance, pick up a copy of Where Things Come Back.

For those interested in winning a copy of the book, you can enter a giveaway over at GReads. It is open internationally and accompanied by a fantastic interview. You should also be sure to check out the paperback cover on Whaley’s website because it is stunning and will require me to own a second copy of this book.

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