Review: Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Where Things Come Back
By John Corey Whaley
228 Pages
Published by Antheneum

In the remarkable, bizarre, and heart-wrenching summer before Cullen Witter’s senior year of high school, everything he thinks he understands about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town vanishes. His cousin overdoses; his town becomes absurdly obsessed with the alleged reappearance of an extinct woodpecker; and most troubling of all, his sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother, Gabriel, suddenly and inexplicably disappears.

As Cullen navigates a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young, disillusioned missionary in Africa searches for meaning wherever he can find it. Through masterful plotting, these two stories are brought face-to-face in a surprising and harrowing climax that is tinged with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, and above all, hope.

Going into Where Things Come Back I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had only seen a few reviews for it, but the ones I saw were positive and since I’m looking to expand my horizons by reading more contemporary I decided to give it a try. I’m very glad that I did.

First of all, Whaley’s writing flows really nicely. I’d almost compare him to John Green in some ways, which is a huge compliment since I’m a newly-minted John Green Fangirl. He creates a quirky character in Cullen (he keeps a little notebook of great titles for books he’ll probably never write) and gives him a really strong and distinctive voice. For example:

“When one is sitting in the passenger seat of his best friend’s car as an overenthusiastic hillbilly is ranting in the back seat about being snubbed by a cheerleader at lunch, his mind begins to wander and think about zombies.”


“When one is sneaking out of the window of the girl he just slept with, he immediately remembers all the movies in which he’d seen this very thing happen and thought about how these things never happen in real life.”

Cullen is intelligent and reserved and somewhat in awe of his younger brother Gabriel, who goes missing one day. The second half of the book deals with Cullen’s feelings about Gabriel’s disappearance and his hope that he will someday return home.  There’s another storyline going on as well involving a missionary and, eventually, his college roommate and I kept wondering how the two were going to come together and then BOOM. Toward the end of the book everything comes together neatly.

Granted it’s a short-ish book, but I flew through it in literally one sitting (or one bath, at least – I looked like a stewed prune when I got out). It is YA, but if you don’t generally read YA dont’ let that put you off. It would definitely have crossover appeal to adult readers, even though the characters are young. I’m really not doing this book justice – it has a charm that’s impossible to describe in words on a blog. Just read it!

4.5/5 stars

Leave a comment


  1. I’ve been wondering about this one. I was telling my husband about it, but I couldnt get him past the extinct woodpecker part (he’s a wildlife biologist in, you guessed it, Arkansas, and thinks the sighting was a hoax.). Anyhow, this may be the one book in the entire universe he might actually read. I want to try this book at some point. There are so few Arkansas authors, so I feel proud (though I’ve don’t nothing)
    Great review, as usual, Karen!

  2. The extinct woodpecker plays a pretty minor role in the story. It exists (or so they claim) but think it’s used more as a metaphor than anything else and as a reason for certain characters to interact.

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