Thursday, May 10, 2012

Book Review: See You at Harry's by Jo Knowles

SUMMARY: Starting middle school brings all the usual challenges - until the unthinkable happens, and Fern and her family must find a way to heal.

Twelve-year-old Fern feels invisible. It seems as though everyone in her family has better things to do than pay attention to her: Mom (when she's not meditating) helps Dad run the family restaurant; Sarah is taking a gap year after high school; and Holden pretends that Mom and Dad and everyone else doesn't know he's gay, even as he fends off bullies at school. Then there's Charlie: three years old, a "surprise" baby, the center of everyone's world. He's devoted to Fern, but he's annoying, too, always getting his way, always dirty, always commanding attention. If it wasn't for Ran, Fern's calm and positive best friend, there'd be nowhere to turn. Ran's mantra, "All will be well," is soothing in a way that nothing else seems to be. And when Ran says it, Fern can almost believe it's true. But then tragedy strikes- and Fern feels not only more alone than ever, but also responsible for the accident that has wrenched her family apart. All will not be well. Or at least all will never be the same.


Emotional and wrenching, See You at Harry’s does a remarkable job of navigating pain and turmoil. This book is gripping but heartfelt, with a well rounded narrator who readers will love. Though I thought Fern’s voice felt older than her twelve years, there was still a certain naivety and innocence to her that bridges that gap. As the story progresses, Fern goes through a stunning range of emotions and changes, and the shift in the way she views the world is one of the most notable parts of this book. Having a better understanding of those around her, and not quite so inherently self centered by the end, I loved seeing Fern’s growth, however painful the road was.

This book is a study in grief, never pulling back even in the most unsettling of moments. Watching everyone around her pull back, and enduring an almost insurmountable of guilt, Fern struggles not only with her family in the aftermath of a brutal event but with trying to get past her own views on things. Desperate for affection yet unsure she is worthy of it, there is something poignantly real about her reactions that shine throughout the book. Adding to the heavily emotional air is the writing, straight to the point with some stunning descriptions and scenes. Apart from the disjoint with the voice versus age, this one is well written and smoothly scripted.

I admit it, this book made me cry, yet there were plenty of laughs in there as well. From full of life and always happy Charlie to Fern’s other brother Holden, struggling with his sexuality yet determined to figure things out on his own, Knowles vividly portrays all her characters. With a big focus on Fern’s family, this one has a different kind of feel to it even with the painful events that happen. Also rich in setting and easily weaving in restaurant life, this one has a certain spark to it that helps it stand out. Notable as well is the way Knowles has even the most mundane and innocent of things suddenly be questioned in the aftermath of things, causing both Fern and readers to rethink every day actions and normal responses. Engaging from the start, with a well developed cast and a steady pacing, See You at Harry’s is both quietly quirky and intensely affecting in some great ways.

Source: ALA Midwinter 
Reading level: Ages 10 and up 
Hardcover: 310 pages 
Publisher: Candlewick 
Publication Date: May 8, 2012

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