At the beginning of the summer, I spied a copy of “See You at Harry’s” by Jo Knowles on the ‘new books’ shelf at our library. I snatched up immediately, having heard all the pre- and post-release buzz on the internet. When I tweeted that I had it in hand and was getting ready to dive in, a friend tweeted back: Keep a box of tissues nearby. (She also said how awesome it was, of course.)
My friend was not wrong. I read the book in one sitting, ignoring the impossibly beautiful summer day outside. I just could not put it down. The kids, perhaps sensing my intensity, had a rare afternoon of playing nicely with one another. By the end, I was wrung out. I needed space and time to process the world I’d just been living, the ways that the author had seamlessly created a story that felt so real it could have happened to a neighbor, a friend.
And I think this is one of the strengths of this novel — Knowles has created characters that have quirks and problems, and a family that is somewhat dysfunctional, but it’s all so normal, and in some ways, familiar.
Before I go on with my thoughts about this book, here is the jacket flap copy:
Twelve-year-old Fern feels invisible. Her dad is always busy planning how to increase traffic to the family business. Her mom is constantly going off to meditate. Her sister Sara, who’s taking a “gap year” after high school, is too busy finding ways not to work; and her brother Holden is too focused on his new “friend” to pay attention to her. And then there’s Charlie: three years old, a “surprise” baby, and the center of everyone’s world.
If it wasn’t for Ran, Fern’s best and oldest friend, there would be nowhere to turn. Ran is always calm, always positive. His 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.
But when their lives are unexpectedly turned upside down, Fern feels more alone than ever, and responsible for the event that wrenches the family apart. All will not be well. Or at least, all will never be the same.
Fern is a wonderful character, well-developed and authentic. Like many “number threes” in a four-child family, she is desperate for her mom’s attention — this is established in the first pages, as Fern remembers that the best day of her life was when she was sick with a stomach bug, and her mother spent the day alone with her, taking care of her. And, like a typical 12 year old, Fern also finds the rest of her family annoying and frustrating: Dad’s attention is on his latest scheme to improve the family’s struggling restaurant. Sara spends more time with a busboy than doing her job, and when she is around is a little too blunt in her comments and observations. There’s Holden, coming to terms with his sexuality and struggling to be open about it. Mom spends her time either seeking inner peace or doting on Charlie. Charlie, always sticky and demanding in the adorable way of most three year olds, is very attached to Fern, who is often the one left to watch over him, even when she’d rather be doing other things.
Knowles spends the first third of the book developing the family dynamics and Fern’s reaction to it all. The family reminds me of many other families in the world — two working parents who are often so focused on making ends meet their children are not a priority. And that is, unfortunately, life for a lot of us. In the first third, there is some humor, especially with Charlie and Fern (for instance, Charlie is always holding his beloved Doll and shaking its naked plastic tush in Fern’s face). And while Fern finds her siblings irritating, the mutual affection is obvious, especially the bond she shares with Holden. There might be bickering and annoyance, but in the end, there is love and support. As a side note, Holden’s issues — coming out and dealing with school bullies — are woven into the world of this book, rather than dominating it, which I find masterful. It also contributes to the reality here — it’s something that happens in a lot of families, but it is not always the only thing going on.
It is all so very real and familiar it makes what comes later that much more shattering.
So, without spoilers I can’t say much more about the story. But as Fern moves through the second half of the book, we struggle with her, and we thrash and we want to cry out. Her pain becomes ours — and if you are a parent reading, it becomes that, too. The end is not a neat wrap-up, a solid conclusion that life will be rosy from now on. But, true to the needs of the middle grade reader for whom this book is intended, there is moving on, the beginning of peace, and the hope that some day the world will be patched back together again — even if the end picture is not what you had before.
Mitzi read this after I’d finished and really liked it (I think she also read it in one sitting). It’s recommended for ages 10 and up; however, depending on how sensitive your reader is, 10 might be a little young for the intensity of the novel — just read first to check.
But read it, you should. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while, which is really saying something. I thought about it for a long time after I read it initially. Then I had to read it again. A few weeks ago I took it out of the library for a third time, though this borrowing was for another reason: this is exactly the kind of book I’d like to write one day. A book that grabs the reader, makes them laugh, breaks their heart, then rebuilds it — in all the right ways, the ways that make it real and true.
As a writer, I want to study Knowles’ work as if it were a textbook. Parse it to find out how she built the world, how she carved the characters, how she did it all so precisely — and effortlessly (although I know this last is not true, that a book this well-written was certainly the result of a lot of hours, sweat, tears, and chocolate). There is a lot I can learn from this book, and I hope to — also, that with each book I write I get closer to the awesome that is “See You at Harry’s.”