[Review] When You Were Here – Daisy Whitney

Book Title:                    When You Were Here (Standalone)
Author:                          
Daisy Whitney
Number of pages:    264daisywhitney_whenyouwerehere

Synopsis:

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.

(re: Goodreads @ When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney)

Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr spoiler-less review:
  • Predominately takes place in Japan and exposes its culture.
  • Male perspective on grieving losses, optimism, and discovering the nature of life and love.
  • Some characters are refreshing, others are one dimensional, but they’re all interwoven and linked to some degree.
Initial Thoughts:

This book was suggested to me by Savindi.

I had a brief moment after I read the synopsis: could it be that Daniel Kellerman will redeem the name “Daniel/Danny” after my experience with Daniel Kelly (re: Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas)? It’s totally not a coincidence that their names are practically identical right? Twins in another life, maybe. This is a young-adult contemporary about grieving death and meandering through clouded vision of acceptance and finding a way to move on. It has the inner workings to be one of those heart wrenching discovery reads where streams of figurative (or physical) tears eventually flow out of your sockets. But it didn’t get to that point for me.

Let me regale you with my grief:

Disclaimer: Potential spoilers inherent to this review from here onward.

Afterthoughts:

[“When someone you love has died, there is a certain grace period during which you can get away with murder. Not literal murder, but pretty much anything else.”]

Now I’m not sure if it’s because I’m heartless, cynical, or just perplexed at my emotionless disposition to this novel but I was certainly pulling for straws with this one. Don’t get me wrong, there is meaning to be had in truth and hope but it didn’t translate for me. And while several factors may lead to this, it’s fundamentally rooted in Daniel Kellerman as a protagonist. I’ll be blunt: the amount of care I had for him was nearly non-existent. With the narrative being dialogue and character-driven, the apparent raw and emotional rollercoaster lives and dies with Danny; who was walking on thin ice to begin with because a large portion of himself died along with his mother.

I don’t necessarily fault Danny on his problems but rather what he does with them. Or maybe I do fault him, I’m not sure anymore. For someone who’s mother (Elizabeth Kellerman) had an affinity for Buddhism, his interpretation on life matters was more focused on the effect-effect (if that’s such a thing) essentially turning a blind eye to its context, the cause. Understandably, his life is shit – I get that. What I don’t fully understand is his destructive, self-absorbed, self-justified volatile behaviour where he’s allowed to act the way he does and is given an infinite number of Get Out of Jail Free passes. Consequence isn’t in his vocabulary. He’s at the dawn of adulthood and he’s certainly left no teenage angst stone unturned as the world basically owes him an explanation for his mother passing away  just shy of his graduation.

[“It hurts knowing that. But it also doesn’t hurt like I thought it would. Because I finally understand. It was never really about the pills. It was never really about tea or treatments. It was about moving on.”]

Let’s consider that for a moment. If I were to have a conversation with this kid, ceteris paribus (all things being equal; assuming he’d divulge information):

“Life sucks.” Why? “My mother recently lost the battle to cancer. I just received a letter from Japan detailing stories my mother has not told me about and the medication she was not taking. Also, she failed to attend my graduation – she broke her promise.”

Uh okay, so what I’m getting is that he would be more-than-okay with his mother dropping dead after the ceremonies because her promise would be followed through; achievement unlocked. Of course it’s not that simple but I question the validity. I understand there’s variants to grieving but at some point he had to have realised that there’s more to things than as it tangibly affects or mentally taxes him. But he doesn’t until he treks halfway around the world to Japan; where he believes he’ll find clarity in his mothers passing. By some metric I can understand this revelation seeking desire, but I’ll return to Danny antics in a bit.

The backdrop of this narrative juxtaposes between California and Japan. On face value, it sounds like an interesting and refreshing mix of locations and cultures. Two places which would appear to be far off and on different poles of the cultural spectrum for Danny to rediscover himself. But then I ask for the sake of argument: to the Japanese, isn’t Los Angeles or Hollywood the American equivalent? With this specific setting, to readers who may take interest to anything Japanese, it focuses on subcultures and facets of identity that hold discernible opinion to individuals outside of the country and hyperbolizes it to the extent of representing a predominant portion of the population. If there was a Japanese Daniel Kellerman who owned an apartment complex in Los Angeles, ceteris paribus, then wouldn’t it be a bit off to begin strutting through Sunset Boulevard distinguishing mainly surfer dudes or valley girls who enjoy eating In-N-Out Burgers and Olive Garden? Ignorance is certainly bliss but the unexamined life isn’t worth living anymore than it is worth having. So as much of an unconventional approach this is to plotting and self-discovery, I guess I just had a different perspective on the portrayal and didn’t enjoy it as much as I anticipated.

[“Danny, I carry a panda purse. Do you think sarcasm bothers me?” She holds out her arms wide and smiles big.
“I am impervious.”]

To tangent Japan to Kana, I found it overly convenient that she had stellar English. I get that there are international schools around the world and that her interests lie in traveling to English speaking countries but her ability to converse sounded like she spoke it regularly. Her headstrong, compassionate and snarky persona was an aspect that I enjoyed quite a bit and one that filled the void of a female voicing that was lost with his mother. Of course, you can argue that Holland (Danny’s on-and-off girlfriend), Kate (Holland’s mother and Elizabeth’s best friend), or Laini (Danny’s adopted sister) could provide these outlets but they weren’t present and in the moment with him as Kana was. Furthermore, the platonic relationship between Kana and Danny could have played out to be one of those clichéd new-girl-from-overseas-self-discovery romance triangles. And to be frank, I wouldn’t care if he ended up canoodling with her because I was mentally exhausted with his relationship with Holland, who holds a significant role in the subplot of Danny’s endeavour to find meaning in his life.

[“She presses an ear against my chest. “Wait. I think I can hear it now.” She pretends to listen again. “Oh yes, I totally agree.” She jams her ear against me once more. “Definitely. That’s what I think too!” She pulls away.

“What did my heart say?”“

When you’re ready, you’ll listen to it, and you’ll know.”

I laugh. “You know what it’s like hanging out with you?”

“It’s like having someone call you on your BS all the time?” she asks with a kooky smile.

“Something like that.”]

There are plot twists that were unexpected but it wasn’t as impactful for me as it probably was to other readers. Specifically, I just couldn’t buy into Danny’s relationship with Holland and the actions she took when certain predicaments occurred. While her actions in theory make sense, from a practical perspective it doesn’t. Consider that Holland and Danny basically grew up together and were each other’s first love where they shared (almost) most experiences together – then suddenly, she dumps Danny and the communication goes cold. So much for best friend status. I give credit to Holland for grieving the kid even more than her intentions to save him from said anguish. This gets further implicated when certain aspects are discovered and Danny becomes even more angst-filled and continues to direct his grief-stricken nature at everyone without fully rationalizing the possibilities. This is vague but it’s a crucial aspect in plotting that I won’t disclose.

But here we are, full circle back to Daniel Kellerman, who on his journey in Japan is learning to see things outside of a vacuum. Initially, he has this one-track mindset fixated on seeking closure to his mother’s departure that it almost seems like he’s grieving after-the-fact (despite having years of preparation). While his emotions are raw, there’s a central poignancy in the bereavement of his mother which leads him to discover the finality to her existence; the fact that by remembering her he can keep parts of her alive just like he does with his father’s methodologies of forgoing the killing of insects. In terms of growth and voicing, Danny does display a certain degree of emotional maturity from having to fast-track his life. However, as bad as it sounds, I just didn’t feel an emotional connection to want to root for him.

[“That’s the secret. That’s the cure. I am no longer the left behind. I am the living. And I want everything this life has to offer.”]

As the summation of the novel nears, it honestly feels as though all the checklist issues Whitney set out to achieve had been resolved in a positive light no ifs-and-or-buts. If the general meaning is formed on the basis of acceptance, for Danny to come to terms with himself and those around him, then his character wasn’t fleshed out for me to prove that point. He’s a character that internalizes everything (which is fine) but centers the thought train on himself; never extending the rationalization to encompass his family and friends. Deep down however, he’s probably a good person. He’s flawed for understandable reasons and exudes the tinge of optimism and hope going forward that makes finding peace a worthwhile journey. While the message focuses on dealing with loss, it is presented in a way that once over exaggerated (through Danny’s inward and outward behaviours) the value created from such a read is less impactful and much easier to dismiss. At least I thought so.

Yet with all this negativity there’s another saving grace: his relationship with his dog, Sandy Koufax, who has been seamlessly integrated into Danny’s rediscovery through anecdotes and the present.

[“Sometimes healing isn’t about our bodies.”]

Consequently, there are several minor detailing that just had me baffled from either the plausibility or the value it added to the plotting. In terms of Danny’s relationship with his sister, I felt like it didn’t really add much value. If you were to remove her character, the clock would continue to tick the same way; but even more so more damaging to Danny who would also be grieving over his father as well. So I guess I’m thankful for Laini’s presence (who was like a Daddy’s girl, just to distinguish the parental favouritism). Additionally, how do these kids throw money around like that? On one page Holland and Danny are arguing and the next page she flies over to Japan within the span of a day. Like, what? Money must grow on trees or something impossible because Danny has no care for the money he spends in fulfilling his needs even though both parents have died and he likely has a dwindling inheritance. Moreover, it’s certainly laughable and scary when it’s suggested that Danny leaves his door unlocked for his friends to come and go as they please. So when an angry Danny leaves Holland one night at his home (he said he had to use the bathroom but escapes through the window) and doesn’t return until hours later in the dead of night, I worry for her safety. That’s love alright. There are certainly many more things that irked me a bit but I’ll save you the trouble.

In terms of the read, it is fairly well written and textually easy to read. I only had the slightest problem when I couldn’t differentiate between the present and flashback at times. I just wasn’t wowed away with the actual plotting involved and its ability to evoke any emotion out of me. So this might be one of those situations where the novel just wasn’t for me despite having the ingredients for an emotional and compelling read that I find with contemporary themes. But if the synopsis interests you then by all means ignore my rambling.

[“I can hear my mom saying these words. These are my mother’s words; these are my mother’s stories. I know these stories. I lived these stories. But I like them more when they’re being told to me, knowing my mom told them to others, knowing my mom wanted to share me with her friends here. She feels alive here, like she left a living, breathing part of herself here in Tokyo. The thought crosses my mind for a second: Did my mom leave these stories here for me? I’m sure that sounds terribly selfish, but did she plant the seeds of these stories, like she planted gardens and flowers and bulbs, so they could find their way back to me? Was that some kind of gift, maybe a legacy, she left for me? Maybe she knew I’d come looking. And maybe she wanted me to have them, a gesture from beyond the grave, a guide for me to keep moving, keep living, keep asking. But I don’t know a damn thing about emotional health.”]

//review rant over.

I’m good with keeping a scheduled review. Not. Anyways, I finally got this thing over with annnnnd nope it is quite unfortunate that I enjoy Daniel Kelly (from Barracuda) more than this Danny. Sad. I’m super stoked at the Olympics soon though. Yeeeeee.

Cheers,
Joey

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