Review: Where Things Come Back

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. Atheneum Books for Younger Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2011. Library copy. Morris Award Short List.

The Plot: Some things don’t come back; like Cullen’s cousin Oslo, dead from an overdose. Some things may come back, like the woodpecker that people believed was extinct until one self-important and pr-savvy professor came to town. In the town of Lily, Arkansas, eager, dream filled teens leave town, sure of bigger and better things that await them, and return because of heart break or sick parents or accidents. Lily, where things come back . . . . sometimes.

Will Cullen’s missing younger brother be one of those things that come back?

The Good: I confess; despite the many good things I’d heard about this books, from people like Kelly Jensen and Jen Hubert Swan, I didn’t put it on my to be read list because — and I cannot believe I’m admitting to this evidence of shallowness —  I didn’t like the cover.

First things first. How much did I love this book? It made me totally rearrange my scheduled blog posts, shifting a bunch of posts, in order to post this book in 2011 so I could call this a Favorite Book Read in 2011 (oops, spoilers, sweetie!) and then go revise my blog posts about my favorite books to add Where Things Come Back and finally to shift those favorite posts from the last week of 2011 to the first week of 2012. I know Sondy understands, that a favorite list isn’t done until the last day of the year happens so I shouldn’t have even tried to post them in 2011.

Where Things Come Back starts in a morgue, with seventeen year old Cullen identifying the body of his older cousin, Oslo. Cullen’s family and friends are introduced, a small circle of people in a small town. This is, at first, what Where Things Come Back seems to be about: small town boy coming of age. Strangely, another story is introduced, about a young man, Benton Sage, on a mission in Ethiopia a story that seems to have nothing to do with Cullen. On page 55, Where Things Come Back shifts: Cullen’s younger brother, Gabriel, disappears. It becomes a story of the loss of Gabriel, the search for him, but is also the story of how Cullen’s life goes on, because that is what happens. It is not just that the clocks don’t stop; it is that life is not so uncluttered that all else fades away and disappears along with the lost one. This is the first reason I love this book: Cullen’s life is full and messy and complicated. His reactions, his parents, are jagged and not linear.

Cullen’s brother is missing. And this is the second reason that I love this book: the mystery of Gabriel’s disappearance. That it isn’t introduced until over fifty pages in, and at only 228 pages, that means that almost a quarter of the book has gone by. An interesting choice; and one that allows the reader to know Cullen “before.” Or, rather, “during.” Cullen is another reason why Where Things Come Back is a favorite book read: Cullen, with his close relationships with a handful of people, his girlfriend issues, his anger that the town spends more time looking for the lost woodpecker than his lost brother.

When and why this story is being told is another strength of this book: just enough for the reader to know it’s not “now.” There is Dr. Webb, who says such things as “most people see the world in bubbles.” Who is he, when is Cullen talking about him? When is this taking place — the clues of this being in the past are few and far between, such as “the president can’t pronounce ‘nuclear’“. “I was still trying to figure out who I was back then.”

Zombies. At certain times, Cullen imagines life as a zombie movie. “His mind begins to wander and think about zombies.” At first, it’s simple day dreaming, making himself the hero in a zombie movie. Later, as he fears the worst, that Gabriel is dead because Gabriel wouldn’t run away, zombies become less about escapism and more about fears and nightmares.

Remember Benton Sage? How and why Benton matters to Cullen is ultimately revealed, and I gasped out loud when I realized the link between the two stories. No, really — I had been making a few guesses as the story progressed and Benton’s saga took some turns, but where it went . . . I didn’t see it coming.

Because of how much I enjoyed this book; because of the complexity of Cullen’s loss and grieving; because I’ve reread the ending a half dozen times; and because I’ve been searching for other reviews, looking for insights and analysis; this is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.


12 thoughts on “Review: Where Things Come Back

  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Liz! 🙂

    Though my stance on not making the list of best books read in 2011 until 2011 is done means it will probably be quite late this year, when no one’s interested any longer. But oh well! (My excuse is that I may have had another stroke. My health does start to become more important than timely blog posts at that point!)

    And you made me tempted to try to fit this one in real quick before the year ends, but it’s probably a lost cause, because I am not nearly going to finish the ones I already want to finish….


  2. Ann, it is intriguing. Very unique, very different, and — for those of you who have read the Carter books — Cullen reminds me of Carter.

    Walter, I’m pleased to see this get a Morris nod and wonder if we’ll hear this title more than once Monday morning.

    faith, I cannot wait to talk to people in real time about this, because there are some things I want to discuss that are way too spoilery for this post.

    Melissa, thanks!

    Sondy, ARG on the health issues. I hope things get better, soon.


  3. I’m just as shallow as you it seems because this book was less appealing to me because of the cover as well. But, so many people are talking it up positively there it’s going to be hard to avoid reading it.


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