No matter how hard he tries, Danny can’t get over the fact that after years of battling cancer, his mom died mere weeks before his high school graduation, the one date she’d been trying to hold on for. With his dad killed in a car accident when he was a kid, his big sister in China trying to rediscover her roots and the summer between high school and college stretching out before him, Danny almost resigns himself to three months in his big empty house, grieving for his mom and obsessing over the girl that got away.
When a letter comes from the caretaker of his family’s apartment in Japan, asking what he’d like to do with his mom's leftover medication, Danny is puzzled, thinking she should have taken it all on her last trip. Desperate to figure out the meaning of the spare pills, wanting to know more about the last few months his mother spent without him and needing to get some space from his best-friend-turned-ex-girlfriend who’s suddenly dropping by after a year of ignoring him, Danny books a one-way ticket to Japan.
Daisy Whitney’s novel covers many emotional bases—grief, loneliness, betrayal, hope—and she captures them all incredibly well. Even as Danny tries to make sense of his mother’s final visit to Japan, he's always aware there might not be any logic behind it, that cracking the puzzle is a way to distract himself but may not give him peace. At the same time, he holds out hope that he can get back together with the girl that broke his heart when she dumped him the previous summer, but when she reaches out, he can’t bring himself to reach back, protecting his heart from more damage.
The book’s biggest strength is its unpredictability. The bulk of the novel is spent trying to unravel a specific mystery, yet Danny’s most shocking discovery has nothing to do with his mother. Likewise, Danny’s friendship with his apartment's caretaker’s daughter doesn’t rely on the promise of romance, which is refreshing from a YA novel.
When You Were Here is an engrossing book that draws readers in by being a window to a different culture and leaving its big questions unanswered until the last minute.
Molly Horan has her MFA in writing for children and young adults from The New School.