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.


7 Responses to "Review: Where Things Come Back"

  • This is such an amazing review, may be one of your best yet. I agree that I want to push this book on to everyone I know. When they ask, well what’s it about? I kind of sit there for a moment and say, well there’s this bird.. haha Maybe I should just point them to this review 😉

    Thank you for the giveaway mention.

    1 Ginger @ GReads! said this (November 28, 2011 at 9:07 AM)

    • Thank you Ginger! You are excellent for my self-esteem 😉

      I had been putting off writing this review because I just didn’t even know how to talk about this book properly, but then when I would recommend it people would ask what it is about (which is a natural question). And then I would also sort of stutter and say uhh it’s about the reappearance of this woodpecker and the disappearance of a boy and about growing up in a small town and second chances and none of this would be very coherent or persuasive. So hopefully the review does a better job and I can just point people here when they ask 🙂

      2 Melanie said this (November 28, 2011 at 11:32 AM)

  • Ugh, between the two of you, I am so asking for this for Christmas.

    3 Jen said this (November 28, 2011 at 12:05 PM)

    • We WIN! (You will thank us. Really.)

      4 Melanie said this (November 28, 2011 at 12:10 PM)

  • Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and say this *is* your best review. Because I’m pretty sure I’ve read all of ’em.

    I’ve read a few reviews of this (Stacked & YA Librarian Tales were the early ones), and I’m glad it’s receiving positive feedback. The original cover certainly had me intrigued because it never stuck out as a YA novel, but I still found it kind of…different. And that second cover sure is a beauty.

    The part where you mention “Benton rooms with Cabot Searcy” makes me smile because all three of those names are cities within an hour of me. Cabot is where my parents have thought about purchasing another home. Searcy is where I went to see a OneRepublic concert. Benton is where my friend Ruth teaches middle grade. Although I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in small town Arkansas, I know it’s going to be a *really* interesting experience when I do read this book. 😉

    Two summers when I had a woodpecker take a good chunk out of one of the trees in my backyard, part of me wished it was an ivory-billed woodpecker. 😉

    5 capillya said this (November 30, 2011 at 10:08 PM)

    • Will be really curious to hear your perspective as somebody from the area. Oh Corey Whaley, you almost got away with that name stealing without me knowing any better 😉

      6 Melanie said this (November 30, 2011 at 10:18 PM)

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