Where Things Come Back – 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.
Review: I don’t think I got along with this book very well. It’s definitely not a bad book, but I don’t think it’s my kind of thing.
This book has four plotlines that come together at the end. In the first story, seventeen-year-old Cullen’s brother goes missing, and his family starts to fall apart.
In a second plotline, a birdwatcher thinks he spotted an extinct species of woodpecker in Cullen’s town. The town is flooded by tourists looking for the bird.
In the third plotline, two religious college students learn about a little-known book of the Bible. The information they discover changes the course of both their lives.
In another plotline, a girl who graduated from Cullen’s high school comes back to their small town after a failed relationship.
The plotlines converge slowly, which I really liked. At first, the plots seem to have nothing to do with each other, but as the book goes on, they come closer and closer together. Eventually, the way that the stories were related clicked in my mind. I needed to keep reading to find out if I was right. I liked the last 50 pages of the book much better than the rest of it. The story starts moving fast when the plotlines come together. I sped through the ending because I wanted to find out if Cullen got his brother back.
The writing style is the biggest reason that I struggled with this book. The best way that I can describe it is “detached.” The detachment does help avoid melodrama (which is great), but I never felt close to the characters. I was interested in the mystery of Cullen’s brother’s disappearance, but I didn’t really care about the outcome of the mystery because I couldn’t connect with anyone involved in it.
I also struggled with Cullen’s narration style. It starts to feel repetitive as the book goes on. He often talks about himself in third person and has elaborate fantasies. Some of the fantasies are about killing zombies. I understand how the zombies tie in to the theme (zombies are “things that come back”), but I think the fantasies take up too much of the book. I was tempted to skim a lot of the parts that are about Cullen’s imagination.
Other than the ending, there is one other part of the book that I really like. At one point, Cullen’s family hires a psychic to find his missing brother. The family members’ mixed reactions to the psychic feel realistic. Some family members want to give the psychic a chance, and others roll their eyes, but they are all very invested in what the psychic says.
Overall, this book wasn’t for me, but there are parts of it that I really liked.