You may remember I talked about this book a long time ago over at Word for Teens. I wrote about how sometimes, there are romantic male leads in novels that just work so, so well. Danny, in Daisy Whitney’s When You Were Here, is one I talked about specifically. He’s stayed with me in the months since I finished this book, and I have a feeling he’ll remain on my list of favorite male characters in YA for a long time.
Danny’s mom, who has toughed out five years of cancer, wants to make it just long enough to see him graduate valedictorian from high school. But before that date comes, his mom dies. Devastated by the loss, as well as the loss of his father a few years before and the loss of his adopted sister who chose to move to China to rediscover her roots, Danny is angry, broken, and confused about what the future could possibly hold. And there’s also another complication, too: Holland. She’s the girl he’d been in love with forever and the girl who was in every way perfect for him. But their relationship ended much too soon and without any resolution. Danny was left in the dark when she suddenly disappeared from his life.
Faced with big decisions about where to go from here, Danny chooses to figure out what it is that kept his mom going for so long. Why she continued to be hopeful and happy, even though her life was near the end. To do this, Danny decides he’s going to fly to the apartment they owned in Tokyo, meet the doctor who meant so much to his mother. This is also his chance to really think about what he wants out of his life.
Along the way, Danny meets Kana, who helped take care of the apartment before his mom died. She’s quirky, she’s energetic, and she’s invested in making sure Danny makes the most of his time in Tokyo. It’s not at all romantic — which is a huge plus in my book — but rather, it’s Danny’s opportunity to rediscover the value and importance of friendship.
Maybe most important was the twist in the story. That’s Holland’s story. If you don’t want to be spoiled, skip down to the next paragraph. The reason Holland disappeared from Danny’s life was that she got pregnant. Since Danny had been the only boy she’d been with and their relationship hadn’t been going on that long and she had been on the pill, it was a reality she hadn’t quite wrapped her head around. What made it worse was when she went into early labor and when baby Sarah died. Danny is the only person not in the loop on this, and he learns about his daughter when going through his mom’s things in Tokyo. His mom had known about the baby, but she and Holland both chose not to tell Danny. It wasn’t a choice out of cruelty. It was done to protect him because he had already lost so much in his life. And the truth of it was that the entire situation was scary and heartbreaking for everyone involved.
When Danny does get to meet the doctor his mother had invested so much in, not only does he understand the value and purpose of his mom’s life, but he has a moment and realizes what value his own is worth.
Whitney handles all of the topics in this book delicately and powerfully in equal measure. Danny’s voice is knock out, authentic, and it is pained. Danny is a boy of action — his feelings play out in the way he acts and the words he chooses to use. They’re not always kind and he’s not always rational. But these things happen the way they do because it’s how Danny works through his pain and his grief. It’s the way he begins to make sense of the world. This is why he chooses to get on that plane and go to Tokyo. It’s why he doesn’t simply DWELL in the anguish but rather, he works and walks through it, step by tortured step. Where the twist element came in, another author could have pushed the envelope too much, adding simply one more thing to the list of horrible things going on in a character’s life. But Whitney introduces and weaves this in so carefully and thoughtfully that it instead amplifies the core of who Danny, his mother, and Holland really are as people.
Danny’s understanding of his mother’s fight — and his mother’s desire to quit the fight — comes to a head when he meets with the doctor to whom she claimed saved her and to whom she dedicated so much energy and belief. And boy, did I cry. Danny learns that choosing the time one lives and the time one dies was the central force of his mother’s hope, even in her battle with cancer. It’s philosophical without being pandering, and it’s spiritual without being spiritual (if that even makes sense). Whitney excels are imbuing the narrative with the Eastern and Western philosophy not only in how she structures the story and Danny’s journey, but even in the way that death and life are explored.
The writing in When You Were Here is sharp, searing, and noteworthy. It doesn’t take a back seat to the complexities of the story nor the complexities of the characters. I give huge credit, too, for how well-done the sex scenes in this book are. There is a great contrast in the sort of sexual relationship Danny has with Trina — it’s one where she is in control, where she calls the shots, and where she gets what she wants and he takes it because he feels so empty and broken from all of the loss in his life. It’s not Holland, and it’s not an emotional and deeply satisfying act of intimacy. When Danny and Holland reconnect in Tokyo, after laying bare all of the things that were keeping them at a distance, their intimacy is raw, powerful, and healthy. Danny is in it not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. And maybe what made it so good in that moment was that almost nothing is said at all about the mechanics. Because that didn’t matter.
I’ve read a lot of grief books, but without doubt, this one stands out. It’s so good it hurts to think about. My one qualm, and it’s something I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about, is that Danny does come from privilege. He’s able to head to Tokyo to a private and paid-for condo without issue. He has a home back in California that’s taken care of, too. These all make sense contextually, but they do require the reader to suspend belief a little. But the freedom Danny has — he’s done with high school and in that “what do I do now?” stage of life before making decisions about going to college or traveling — is completely believable, especially with all he’s been thrown in the recent months and years.
Whitney gets bonus points for a great sidekick animal with Danny’s dog Sandy Koufax, and for those of you worried, the dog does not die. Pass When You Were Here off to readers who like foreign-set contemporary stories, who enjoy grief books, who enjoy romantic male lead characters, and those who want to fall into a story for a long time. This one’s been compared to Gayle Forman’s Where She Went, and while I don’t buy that comparison (besides both feature a male romantic lead), I do see how fans of Forman’s writing would dig Whitney’s novel.
Review copy received from the publisher. When You Were Here will be available Tuesday.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).