Thursday, June 28, 2012

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley
Release Date:
May 3, 2011
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Source: Library


Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf?

Just when seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter thinks he understands everything about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town, it all disappears. . . .

In the summer before Cullen's senior year, a nominally-depressed birdwatcher named John Barling thinks he spots a species of woodpecker thought to be extinct since the 1940s in Lily, Arkansas. His rediscovery of the so-called Lazarus Woodpecker sparks a flurry of press and woodpecker-mania. Soon all the kids are getting woodpecker haircuts and everyone's eating "Lazarus burgers." But as absurd as the town's carnival atmosphere has become, nothing is more startling than the realization that Cullen’s sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother Gabriel has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.

While Cullen navigates his way through a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young missionary in Africa, who has lost his faith, is searching for any semblance of meaning wherever he can find it. As distant as the two stories seem at the start, they are thoughtfully woven ever closer together and through masterful plotting, brought face to face in a surprising and harrowing climax.

Complex but truly extraordinary, tinged with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, this novel finds wonder in the ordinary and emerges as ultimately hopeful. It's about a lot more than what Cullen calls, “that damn bird.” It’s about the dream of second chances. (courtesy of Goodreads)


I finished Where Things Come Back several weeks ago. I'm still not sure what I think of it. I definitely see why it won the Printz award. Does that mean I liked it? I'm not sure. You know the saying that there's a fine line between genius and madness? In books, there's a fine line between genius and really weird. I can't decide on which side of the line Where Things Come Back falls.

Where Things Come Back is one of those books where not all that much seemingly happens. That's not accurate, since there is a strong plot: Cullen's brother disappears and a rare woodpecker is discovered just outside of town. But the book is so wordy and cerebral that the plot feels like a second thought.

Cullen is one of those stereotypical teenage boys who spends most of his time thinking and pontificating on the world around him. Think of Holden Caulfield, Augustus Waters of The Fault In Our Stars, or even Ethan Wate of the Caster Chronicles series. He fancies himself a writer and is always coming up with odd titles for a to-be-written novel or describing his surroundings in witty quips. Part of me loves him for his sensitivity, his intelligence, and his drive to be better than his narrow minded town. Another part of me simply rolls my eyes at Cullen's over-the-top pretentiousness and his unrealistic insights.

Like many literary novels, Where Things Come Back is not a page turner. To be fully appreciated, it should be read slowly, giving the reader time to ponder the underlying context and the amusing brilliance of Cullen's thoughts (whether Cullen's thoughts are brilliant is debatable, as noted). It is a short novel so you can probably get through it in a day or two.

I was ready to dismiss Where Things Come Back as a hoity toity novel until the end when everything came together. The book switches back and forth between the perspectives of Cullen, an African missionary, a college student, and more. This makes absolutely no sense at first, because the characters are entirely unconnected. But at the end, the puzzle pieces magically fit together. This is the only reason I think Where Things Come Back may be worthy of the Printz. It reminded me of how the stories in Jellicoe Road eventually meshed (although it lacks the emotional punch of my beloved Jellicoe Road). I'd recommend reading Where Things Come Back simply for the surprise at the journey's end.

Rating: 3.5 / 5


  1. This part has me intrigued:It was interesting how seemly unrelated characters connected at the end.
    I have read a few books where i was left unsure how i felt about it too..great review

  2. Wonderful review, Alison!
    I became curious about this book when Maggie Stiefvater reviewed it and it's been on my tbr ever since. I love it when seemingly unconnected things come neatly together at the end, and I certainly love surprises.

  3. Oh i know exactly what you mean by "There's a fine line between genius and really weird"... That a book won a prize doesn't mean you will end up completely loving the book!
    Same is true with Movie's that win Oscar's.. often those are not the ones that I enjoy most:))

  4. This is one of those books that I've been on the fence about reading, and I appreciate your review. I really feel like I'll be left with the same thoughts at the end, despite how many people just adore it.

    -Jac @ For Love and Books

  5. A hoity-toity novel *snort* Sounds like something with a hoity-toity award. Not sure this is something I'll read but...maybe. Great review!

  6. Honestly, I couldn't click with this novel because of the pretentiousness and the ending didn't work for me at all. I was really disappointed since I had expected really great things. I'm still kind of upset over the book, haha. Wonderful, insightful review!

  7. Yes, the end pulled everything together and it was amazing. I loved it. I'm sorry it didn't sweep you up. I actually read it quite quickly and stayed up way too late (when I had to be up at 5am) to finish it becuase I couldn't put it down. I definitely know what you mean about literary novels.

  8. For quite a while as I read I was skeptical about the book. Then, by the end, I was amazed at how everything tied together. I really enjoyed it.

  9. Yeah, this book is for me. I love all of thoese characters. Character with depth to them. Thanks for the review.

  10. I'm not sure if this is the book for me! I like a good page turner so slower books are hard for me, but I do love when seemingly disparate elements suddenly and brilliantly fit together and leave me with a new appreciation for everything I'd read up to that point. Beautiful review Alison!

  11. Like Jenny, I'm unsure if this one is for me. I'd probably think it too hoity toity, even if it did make sense in the end.

  12. I read this book a couple months ago, and I had to put on my grumpy pants after finishing. It was like one of those gimmicky indie films that's kinda cool but also makes you feel used.

  13. I never heard of this one until the Printz Award. I usually just read those to see if the nomination/award was rightfully deserved. I do like the sound of Cullen. I'm in the minority that adored Holden Caufield. I hope to get to the book someday.

  14. Great review! I like the premise of the story and the cover, not if i'll enjoy it completely though.

  15. I have yet to read Where Things Come Back, but I "met" John Corey Whaley about a month ago at a signing and he spoke a lot about the books meaning and so forth, so maybe that would help in reading the book. Overall, i find this to be an awesome review!

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