Welcome to Forgotten Fridays. This mission of this feature is, twice a month, to review books that are more than a year old. And we review them TOGETHER! Most reviews have minor spoilers because it is hard to block them out in a back and forth dialogue about a book. So keep that in mind when reading, though we do try to not mention anything that would ruin a book for anyone.
This week Lyn and Kara tackle Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley.
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.
Kara: So, before we really get to the nuts and bolts of this thing, I have to ask, what made you pick this book?
Lyn: It was a suggestion by one of our readers! I was excited that someone pitched a book for Forgotten Friday. I had this one on my shelf for a while, and it was a Printz winner, so I thought it was time to pick it up.
I won’t say it was a terrible pick, but it was tough to get into this one.
Kara: Alright, I am going to state right off that I didn’t like it. Like at all. And I am absolutely flummoxed that this book was nominated for the Printz with Jasper Jones, and this won. Like WHAT? That book was so much better in all ways.
I will say that I appreciate the themes that the author tried to get in there, but I had no personal connection to this book at all, and on top of that, I was bored to tears.
Lyn: Jasper Jones was a much better pick, I have to agree with you on that. I didn’t understand the point of the book. It never focused on religion, or mental stability or grief long enough to center the book around one point. It was just all over the place.
However, one thing that did draw me to the book was the interpretation of the story. Was it just me, or did it feel like the story was made up by a boy in an institute?
Kara: Gosh, I don’t even know. For me, the plot and ideas were so all over the place that I never really got the chance to focus on thinking about it in a deeper way. Can you explain what you mean?
Lyn: Cullen always talked about a doctor, and what a particular doctor said, but when did he meet with the doctor? When did he have time to go visit him? At the end of the story, it dawned on me that we never saw the professional in person. Cullen always talked about what he said to him. The ideas and the connections were so outlandish, that I started to think that maybe, it was some crazy pulp story to cover something that really happened. Because I honestly believed that Gabriel died, and he never came back. I think Cullen made it all up, and he was living in a ward the entire time, due to grief.
Kara: Wow. I never thought about it that way. I just assumed that when he talked about the doctor that he was referring to someone he saw in the past, but at the same time, I did notice that the story was told in third person omniscient, so you could be right. I figured it was Cullen telling us this story as an adult. As far as his brother coming back, I never thought for a second that he made it up, but something about the ending didn’t sit right with me. It felt rushed, it was too pat, and it was not the way I expected the book to end. Your interpretation is certainly an interesting one, and it makes this book a bit more interesting, because I just didn’t understand the point or purpose of it at all.
Lyn: The way I pieced it together, I figure Oslo was really Gabriel, Lucas was the rational part of his head, trying to break through and come back to his senses, I believe Quitman was the guilty part of his brain, the girls were the sexual frustration. The parents slowly pulled away, and I thought that they visited less and less as his time in the ward progressed. His parents never seem to do MUCH, and we see their actions through Cullen’s backtracking. At the end, Gabriel coming home was when Cullen conquered his demons and was finally let out of the facility. It was the only way I could make the story all fit together – it was a cover.
Kara: It’s an interesting theory, and with you thinking that way, I can understand why you liked it more than me. The only thing I question, don’t you think the author would have given us some answers if the book was intended to be the way you are interpreting it? Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a fascinating way you’ve put it all together. I don’t know. Maybe I just need to look deeper into my books. Ha.
Lyn: I suppose he would. Maybe it is like The Yellow Wallpaper – 20 different people read the story and have 21 different interpretations. I often try to rationalize crazy ideas (like with Imaginary Girls) that will help me enjoy the book so much more. Maybe it was a case of the blue curtains: The curtains were just fucking blue. Maybe Gabriel lives, and it is all real, but it seems so far-fetched. The main character constantly made book titles, so I read into it as a story within a story.
Kara: Haha, maybe! I did think about the way you guys had these out there theories for Imaginary Girls when you started talking about this! You never know though because you never know what the author intended.
I just had a really tough time getting into this book. I read through it in a decent amount of time, but I had no urge to go back to it, no motivation to finish. I was just bored. I think for me the big thing always ends up being about the characters. If I find them flat or I can’t connect with them in some way, the book isn’t going to work for me. And it just didn’t work for me. Plus, I didn’t like that the only two females in the book were ditzy and useless. It bothered me.
Lyn: The sexism in the book rubbed me the wrong way. It was just terrible how the girls were portrayed. They all had issues, and they were all throw-away characters. I could write another essay on this right here.
Another BIG issue I faced was the writer. The whole “when one is in the car going to Backwaters USA, he starts to “see/think/imagine/concoct” pieces just made me grind my teeth. The writing was just a mess. I’m sorry. I figured the author was going for the whole “deep in the character’s head” angle but it never, ever, EVER worked for me.
Kara: Totally agree on the writing being a mess. Half the time I didn’t even know what was going on, and it’s not because I’m not smart. The execution was just poor. Like what were the author’s goals with this book? What did he hope to accomplish? By the way, what did you think of the whole woodpecker storyline?
Lyn: Weird. Just…the only point I saw in it was that it was symbolism for the idea for Gabriel to come back to life. The woodpecker never existed, and neither did the resurrection of his brother. I think when he accepted the bird was a lie, his hope was a lie as well. He had to let it go. He had to give up the chase and accept that things just do not come back to life because you want it to.
How about you?
Kara: Same. Yeah, I think it tied in to the Gabriel storyline and that was it’s only purpose which is just confusing and irrelevant, in my opinion. Honestly, Lyn, I have no idea. This whole book was just a confusing clusterfuck to me. If I could write my thoughts in emojis, it would be a confused face, a thumbs down, and a pile of poop. The end.
Lyn: HAHAHA! Yeah, it was just meh. I gave it three stars. It wasn’t horrible, but it is a novel I am going to forget about.
Kara: Yeah, completely forgettable whereas Jasper Jones had its problems, but it was totally memorable. I cannot believe it didn’t win against this. I’m giving it 2 stars. Basically, I hated it, but I appreciated the ambition.
Lyn: JJ wasn’t sad enough? It seems like the award winners like to make you feel like someone kicked you.
Kara: I think JJ was super sad though! Racism, abuse, it had a hopeful ending though and maybe that is frowned upon? I don’t know. At least we are reading Night Film next. 😀
Lyn: Holy hell, I can’t wait to start a discussion about that one.
Kara: Me either. I am going to start it tonight. 😀
DONE. NO MORE. FIN.