Title: If You Were Here by Jennie Yabroff
Publisher: Merit Press
Genre: Contemporary, Young Adult, Magical Realism, Mystery
Length: 272 pages
Book Rating: B+
Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss
Tess used to be normal–or at least, she knew how to fake it. Then her mother started showing up at her fancy prep school and acting crazy, which turned Tess into social cyanide. Now, her days at school, once almost tolerable, are unbearable. She longs for summers at her grandmother’s lake house, binging on old movies and Oreos, and weekends with her best and only friend, Tabitha. Until then, Tess just tries to survive, with long runs through Central Park to keep the anxiety down by day, although her nights are increasingly haunted by strange, dreamlike visions that fill her with dread. Then Tabitha drops Tess without warning, switching her allegiance to the school’s clone-like popular girls, and leaving Tess without a friend in the world. Before Tess can even cope with losing Tabitha, a horrific tragedy happens one night at school, and Tess is blamed for it. Now, she must fight to find out the truth about that night, and to clear her name, all the while wondering if her visions were really a prophecy, or if she is going to end up in the grip of an uncontrollable mental illness–just like her mother.
With a cast of realistic characters, a touch of magical realism and an imaginative plot, If You Were Here by Jennie Yabroff is a riveting young adult novel that touches on some sensitive topics such as mental illness, teenage friendships and loss.
Social outcasts at their exclusive private school, Tess Block and Tabitha Smiley have been best friends for the past five years. The summer before their junior year, Tess goes to visit her grandmother like she usually does but when she returns home, she is puzzled when Tabitha ignores her texts. When school resumes, Tess’s puzzlement turns to hurt once she realizes that over the summer break, Tabitha has transformed herself into one of the popular girls. Tess feels more isolated and alone than ever now that Tabitha is best friends with mean girl Amanda Price and perfect Zoe Haley. When the unthinkable happens, Tess tries to comes terms with a devastating loss while at the same time trying to learn the truth about what happened to Tabitha.
Tess was once popular and well-liked by her classmates but after her mom’s struggle with mental illness became public knowledge, all of her friendships dwindled away. Five years later, she and best friend Tabitha spend all of their time together eating contraband snacks while watching their favorite movie, Sixteen Candles. Tess’s home life is overshadowed by her mother’s bouts with depression and manic episodes and she escapes to Tabitha’s as often as possible. Although Tess is relatively content with the status quo, Tabitha wants nothing more than to become a part of the popular crowd.
While Tess is spending the summer with her grandmother, Tabitha is busy reinventing herself. Tess barely recognizes her friend but she is stunned when Tabitha snubs her in favor of Amanda and Zoe. Angry and hurt by Tabitha’s behavior, Tess keeps a vivid and prophetic dream about her friend to herself. After a horrible accident, Tess feels guilty and ashamed about keeping the dream to herself and she is haunted by the last bitter and hurtful argument between her and Tabitha. When questions arise about the circumstances of Tabitha’s accident, Zoe and Amanda’s revelations cast suspicion in Tess’s direction. Can Tess uncover the truth about what happened to Tabitha?
The subplot that deals with Tess’s mom’s mental illness is a little uncomfortable since Tess is not exactly sensitive when referring to her mom. While it is a realistic representation of how insensitive and tactless a teenager can be, it is not easy seeing Tess continually refer to her mom as “crazy”. The portrayal of the effects her mom’s illness have on the family and their home life is absolutely heartbreaking. Tess’s dad is trying hard to give his daughter as normal a life as possible and while he sometimes falls short, Tess appreciates his efforts.
If You Were Here by is a compelling young adult novel with an intriguing storyline. Jennie Yabroff’s depiction of teenagers struggling to fit in is poignant yet true to life. The characters are brilliantly developed with relatable flaws and imperfections. A clever story with a hint of mystery and a dash of magical realism that will appeal to readers of all ages.