"Four months. Glaze on a donut." This is a wonderful, thought provoking Young Adult book.
-Review By Kazza K
Robert Westfall is a young man who is quite an achiever at school. He has a number of adornments on his letterman jacket, he does community work with special needs children, he's in the band, he's popular, good looking, and even has this cutesy yet stalkerish groupie Facebook page dedicated to him by three students. He's also gay. So it's immediately interesting that this is not some harsh everyone-hates-the-gay-student book. Robert even has a good friend who is gay, Luke. Luke is in a committed relationship of his own, with an older college student. Robert also has a boyfriend, Nic, who is a really painful person. Nic doesn't 'do sickness' or 'death'. He loves 'his girls,' the cheerleaders. He's an air-headed-himbo, and while he is annoying, you have to laugh at his thought processes and self-centred actions. Robert isn't into Nic, so it's not like there is any great hurt coming his way from him, mostly irritation. These things all sound so typical, pretty nice, like an average to better teenage life, except Luke's father has brain cancer, has had it for ten years. Only now, over the last three months, it's become terminal.
In reality? Robert's home life is a disaster, his mother tries so hard but is, understandably, just holding it together, having to work, change catheters, clean up bodily fluids, clean fish tanks meticulously, because her husband demands it, and generally deal with an angry, resentful, self-centred man. Robert's father has never worked and has been ridiculously doted on by his older sisters and his mother, as the male of the great doctor-breedingWestfall family. They blame Robert and his mother because 'she fell pregnant with him' and 'robbed' their brother of his chances of greatness. Robert and his mother can never do enough, be enough, care enough for the dominating aunts and their brattish children, who, ironically, can do no wrong. Robert does nothing but step up to the plate alongside his mother but that is never seen. The only time they acknowledge him is in reference to how much he looks like his father. The extended family has so much toxicity it is painful to watch, painful to see two opeople who don't deserve it get berated and dismissed by these nasty family members. Robert loathes his father and can't bring himself to say this to anyone for fear of being thought of as mentally unhinged. We're supposed to love our parents, told to honour and obey. But what if they aren't worth those feelings? Once again, I liked that this book did not go into the whole someone-is-dying- therefore-he-must-be-good place. No, Robert's father is a a selfish, uncaring man who does not love his only child, his son. Wrote emails to his sisters about how Robert still wet the bed at twelve and how that "digusted" him.
Andrew McNelis is a twenty-four year old high school maths teacher. He loves his senior class, they take math - calculus, algebra - seriously, they work hard and there's some really good kids in the class; inlcuding Robert Westfall. His freshmen year class, on the other hand, has it's share of juvenile, churlish behaviour, especially from one student, which does come to a head. Andrew is divorced, seems to have a good relationship with his wife, Maya, her partner, Doug, and loves his two year old daughter, Kiki, to bits. He's a good dad, he's a caring teacher - he's one of the good ones. He is not overtly gay and feels it is hidden well enough at school for privacy. He has applied to a program that will allow him to further his career, eventually becoming a Vice Principal or higher if he is accepted. He's a nice looking young man and more than a few girls take an interest in him. They discover he follows AfterElton on Twitter and fill in some dots. Rumours fly in schools both amongst the students and the teaching staff. Although his friend at school, fellow teacher Jenny, doesn't seem to have received the 'memo,' and flirts without mercy with Andrew. The students feel they have a handle on his sexual orientation and when he discovers this he is horrified. It is instilled in teachers to be above board on their Twitter, and Facebook pages. I find this offensive. Unless you invite students onto your social networking sites, which a teacher shouldn't, Andrew McNelis didn't, then it should be no-ones business but theirs.
Andrew knows that Robert's father is dying, he has received emails form the Principal's office about it. He notices that the normally attentive and quick-off- the-mark Robert is floundering and helps him out on a test he is basically doodling on in obvious despair. Andrew has always thought Mr Mac, a nice guy, perhaps a bit more, and now he wants a friendship with someone that seems to care in a sea of non-caring adults. He tries to give Mr McNelis his mobile number but he refuses to take it saying it would be improper. When Robert is totally rejected and seemingly at his wits end Mr McNelis gives him his number instead, and says he can call if he needs to talk. It's a kind gesture by a caring man. Robert and Mr McNelis develop a closer bond, and Robert manages to have Andrew invited to a band dance by a fellow teacher who is looking for chaperones.The school Principal catches word of this, because a parent has mentioned that Mr McNelis has been seen with Robert at the band dance in the carpark. It was basically innocent, Robert was showing his teacher how to throw a rifle. However, he has been told to stay away from Robet Westfall from here on in, they're both gay but, hey, it's not about that, it's just inappopriate. So much so, it seems, that on the night of Robert's father's death, Andrew won't allow Robert any attention or closeness. When the faculty are offically made aware of his death, and the funeral, Andrew is denied permission to attend. He states that other teachers are going, but his requests are denied. He decides to attend the wake, as it's after school hours, he cannot let Robert do this on his own anymore; make him think he doesn't care. Because of his job, Andrew is scared to the point of shutting someone out that needs him. He's overwhelmed at the thought of being deemed inappropriate with a student, one he cares very deeply for, especially now he has been warned-off by the Principal. When he arrives at the wake it is well attended but no-one seems to know where Robert is, no-one seems to care. He eventually finds him outside on the ground against a wall -
I notice that he is holding a small notebook. "What's in the notebook?" I ask. He looks down at it for a moment like he's just seeing it for the first time, then turns it over twice in his hands. "One of my aunts gave this to my dad before he got so bad he couldn't write anymore. It was so he could record his memories, words of wisdom, his hopes for my future....his love." he bites his lower lip, then looks away. I take the notebook from him and open it. I flip through the blank pages and silently curse the man who dared to call himself a father.
He's folding his arms tightly across his chest, and he's twitching more violently, almost like he's cold. And I know he's hurting, for the father he's lost....or maybe the one he never had.
......I unlock the door and show him in, he turns and falls into me. "It's okay, baby." The words are out of my mouth before I can check them. I close the door behind me and hold on to him as he sobs into my shoulder, his fingers gripping at the back of my shirt. When his anguish dissolves into something like hiccups, he turns his face into my neck.
A few days ago this would have been out of the question. A few days ago all I could think about was my career, my reputation, how a scandal might affect my daughter. But then he'd showed me that notebook, something about those blank pages had written something on my heart, and there was no unwriting it.
It is from this point that things progress into an area that Andrew has little to no control over anymore, he can't pretend he doesn't care. He is falling for Robert, he loves his soul, they have been sending song lyrics to one another. Robert loves the goofy maths t-shirts that Andrew wears and he loves that he listens and does not judge, something he has rarely experienced before. He can open up to this man and feels like a person. As close as he and his mum can be, given the cancer, sadness, struggle to get through, judgement they have had to live with, that has been between them, they have little time for everyday comunication.
As a Young Adult book Where You Are has plenty to keep a fifteen year old, and over, rivetted if they enjoy a contemporary style of book. It is quite full of American school-isms, also pop culture, current song references, popular teen shops, social networking sites, and other youthful terminology that should be more than enough for teenagers to relate to. There's humour, snark, a romance, and carefully written sexual tension between Andrew and Robert. There are also moments of reflection and sadness, and more than a few young readers will relate to the way other kids behave, the way they can feel at school, or at home; when things are tougher than usual, dealing with annoying boyfriends or girldfriends, hurtful relationships. It's all very real and it's all very relevant. It is also written in an easy to read, interesting way. It's engaging, irrespective of age. I'm way past my teenage years but I found it a joy to read. I will buy a copy for my son, who is a teenager, and I guarantee he will love it.
The dual POV's were essential to drive Where You Are - due to the story being told, the subject matter, the absolute need to hear two distinct voices - and they were distinct and wonderfully written by J H Trumble. You needed to hear, to feel what is going on from both sides about their friendship, their burgeoinig relationship, their individual lives, their side of the story. If either POV had been left out it would not have worked. The youthful uncertainty of Robert, his need for school, aka escape, his pain at his home life, his father's neglect, his mother's stoicism and despair, his aunt's patronising, condescening, and insufferable attitudes needed his voice. Andrew's love of teaching, attempts to help a young man who needed it, offering compassionate friendship, his deepening feelings for Robert, his fear and genuine attempts at drawing a line, holding onto ethics, but having love overrule, his love for his daughter, and naivety and affection regarding his ex wife, Maya, were all very poignant and necessary.
There are times in this book where I could have thrown the Kindle. It upset me, made me shout out, ticked me off, made me laugh out loud, made me sigh, had me sitting on the edge of my seat - everything a good book should do. There is adversity to overcome for both of the protagonists. There are some nice times, and there are consequences. Two young men learn some lessons, who their friends are, what they mean to each other in reality, and the meaning of real family.The book has a nice ending and I think most will like how it turns out.
Where You Are presents an ethical issue. The teacher cares for, falls in love with the student, the student feels safe/ cared for/falls in love with the teacher. The student is turning 18 - when they can vote, already drive a car, often work. and, in my country, drink alcohol, not in America. However, many adult expectations occur with this age not only from within but from society as well. "Grow up," "you're not a child anymore"...ring loud and clear at this age. Many are sexually active well before seventeen/eighteen. However, if the teacher is caught doing anything deemed to be inappropriate with a student they can/will lose their good name, lose their ability to teach, despite student loans and years of study, and could (depending on age and state) spend up to twenty-five years in jail; despite consent. It's a tricky issue, there are those that are older and predatory - a forty year old man/woman with a fifteen year old student is a different situation than a soon to be an eighteen year old, graduating student, and a twenty-four year old. Aah, but there are rules. aren't there.
While I understand the need to protect children from potential predators, everything is not always as it seems. I totally understand this point made by Andrew -
Maybe I want to be told that the heart trumps the law.
Do not be put off this book by the subject matter. I thought about this book from a professional's perspective. I thought about it from a parent's perspective, and I thought about if from a reader's, perspective... and every which way I looked at it I loved it. It is thought provoking, it is memorable and the characters went to bed stuck inside my head last night. The story is sensitively handled. It is told with much compassion, I never felt as though the author was ramming an opinion down my throat. Others can make up their own mind, see things their way. However, the subject is not as simple as one may believe it is. I fully understand the pros and cons. I could write forever on this book and topic. I work with children, I work with families, I teach parenting, I work with adolescents. I work with dysfunction. I can categorically say that this book should be picked up by study groups, youth organizations, teachers, and parents, as a talking point. To make people think a bit more about teenagers, people, situations, and perhaps how to look at a story without seeing the sensationalized headlines clouding judgement. A sublime piece of writing. Highly recommended reading for teenagers up.
I'll leave with some words from Andrew McNelis, who ordered his thoughts about his growing relationship with Robert. This is point number four -
4. I'm crazy about him. I can't help that he came into my life four months too soon; he stole my heart when I wasn't looking. That I don't want it back even if he's willing to hand it over.
This book was supplied to me by Kensington Publishing in return for an honest review. All reviews on On Top Down Under Book Reviews are reviewed in an honest and open manner.