Review: When You Were Here

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: When You Were HereWhen You Were Here by Daisy Whitney
on June 4, 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 264
Format: eARC
Source: NetGalley

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.

First Sentence: “When someone you love has died, there is a certain grace period during which you can get away with murder.”

First of all, I need to start with an explanation as to why it took me over a month to read a book that weighs in at less than 300 pages, since that is totally not the norm for me. This is a perfect example of why I prefer physical galleys. With e-galleys, I stick them on my Nook and read them whenever I’m away from home and have some free time for reading, but that doesn’t necessarily happen to me all that often, really, so then it takes me about a month to read a single, short book. I mention this solely to say that it likely did have a negative impact on my reading experience. Perhaps, had I read this in a sitting or two, I would have liked it more than I actually did, and come closer to the feelings I expected to have.

I do think When You Were Here is an excellent book, well-written and meaningful. Daisy Whitney considers cancer in a way I’ve not encountered before. The focus is less on the disease itself but how Danny’s mom lived with the disease. Whitney brings When You Were Here to a sweet, uplifting conclusion, but one that does not feel overly optimistic, rather real and hopeful.

My favorite parts were after Danny went to Japan to find out about his mom’s life when she was there, after receiving a note from the caretaker of the family’s apartment in Japan about the disposal of her almost unused medications. Curious about why she wasn’t taking them, angry that she may not have been trying her hardest to live until his graduation like she always promised, he decides to fly to Japan spur of the moment. Those chapters where he explores Tokyo were beautiful and made me want to go there even more.

In Tokyo, he meets the caretaker’s daughter, Kana, a couple years older than he is (just graduated from high school). Kana is the best, so unapologetically herself. She dresses as crazy as our stereotypes of Japan, wearing boots a drag queen would envy and things like that. If anyone gives her a hard time, she gives it back, even to hissing at them on the streets. Immediately, she befriends Danny, determines to help him find happiness and to find more of it herself, since she no longer loves Tokyo and he does. Their friendship grows quickly and its strong and delightful. He needs her, and meeting her is like a gift his mom left for him. I also just love that this is one of the only examples of a strong male-female friendship in fiction. There’s no sexual tension or chance that they’ll date. They love each other as friends and nothing more, even though both are single.

What kept me from loving this book were the main characters, Danny and Holland. Not only did I not connect with them, but I feel an active dislike for them. Whitney does a good job of establishing their flaws, but I’m not nearly as forgiving as the average person. When the reader meets Danny, he’s as angsty as Nastya and Josh from The Sea of Tranquility, which, in case you haven’t read that, means angsty as fuck. Now, he does have good reason to feel this angst: father years dead, adopted sister estranged from the family, dumped by the girlfriend he loves, and mother recently dead, not having lasted to his graduation. I do feel bad for him, but the self-destructive way he reacts to it in no way endears me to him. The only times I like Danny are when he is with or thinking about his dog, Sandy Koufax. His love for her is what keeps me from hating him entirely, proving that he’s a good person.

Holland, on the other hand, has a whole subplot going on about her, but I can’t go into details because they would be spoilery. Suffice it to say that I think she treated Danny abominably and stupidly. Again, it makes sense why she did, but I still think it was messed up and I can’t just forgive her for that. I found her hugely irritating besides. Except for that one plot point, she’s a total manicpixiedreamgirl, made of perfection. Adding a sappy plot to make her not perfect didn’t fix that for me. Also, that plot is something I intentionally avoid; had I known about it, I never would have read When You Were Here, so much do I not like that subject matter. That’s totally a personal thing, however, and don’t let my own distaste scare you off, since trusted friends have been loving this.

All in all, When You Were Here is a beautiful novel, but one that I am not the ideal reader for. Though I do love darker contemporaries, I was not ready for another incredibly angsty character and I also feel distaste some of the subject matter. As I said, trusted friends have loved this, so don’t write it off based solely on my opinions and my own personal biases.

Favorite Quote:

 “‘Fuck high school. Fuck everyone. I’m outta here.’
Let me tell you: You’ve never seen a standing ovation like that before.”

8 responses to “Review: When You Were Here”

  1. Awww, that sucks that you didn’t love this book! I’ve seen really great things about it. It’s hard to get past difficulties with the main characters though, they ARE kind of important. Great review!

    -Taylor @ Reading is the Thing 

    • Christina says:

      Yeah, I think maybe I would have liked this more if I’d read it more quickly, and I do know that most people like that subject matter more than I do. It’s a shame, but I’m just not the ideal reader for this one.

  2. Megan K. says:

    One thing cancer books – not that I’ve read many – tends to focus on too much is the cancer, not how the person with it lives with it, so I guess that’s one good thing about When You Were Here. More angsty characters. Yikes. Not sure how much I’d like Danny and Holland, so it’s understandable that you didn’t love them much at all. Nice quote, though.

    • Christina says:

      This was very much not about the cancer so much as reacting to the changes. The mom had all these awesome colored wigs and stuff. She totally lived her life to the fullest, which was awesome. I wish I’d gotten to meet her as a character, rather than the kids. Haha.

  3. Faye M. says:

    Ah, that’s interesting. I’d definitely love to read a cancer book where disease is not the focus (something like A Monster Calls). I think I’ll give this a try sometime in the future and hope Danny and Holland won’t give me a headache. Haha.

    Faye @ The Social Potato

  4. OMG you’re so right – Holland IS the manicpixiedreamgirl, which I don’t really like. Maybe that’s why I’ve yet to connect to her so far in the book. I’m about 25% through the book right now, and he still hasn’t made it to Japan. I’m looking forward to it picking up.

  5. Renae M. says:

    Cancer books really aren’t my thing in any form, though I think the “after the fact” emphasis would work better for me, but I really love Whitney’s style, so that’s incentive enough to read it. Though the comparison to Sea of Tranquility is somewhat off-putting lol.

  6. Molli Moran says:

    How cool that the location really came alive for you, Christina! That’s awesome. And I always love when we get an awesome friendship in a book that DOESN’T crumble bc the characters start dating, or get awkward with everyone wondering if they WILL date.

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