Fern's lucky, even if she doesn't realize it. She has a family that loves her, people she can confide in, and a place she can call home (two places, if you count their family's restaurant as a second home).
Then the worst thing imaginable happens. Something she'd never, ever imagined. Something no one saw coming. Something no amount of wishing can undo. And nothing will ever be the same.
Twelve-year-old Fern is the third kid, the youngest girl, eight years older than her little brother. She sometimes bickers with her older sister, Sara, and she is sometimes bothered with the amount of attention that's paid to her toddler brother, Charlie. While both of her parents work hard, she knows that the restaurant they own is really more her father's passion than her mother's. Fern's closest confidants are her older brother, Holden, and her best friend, Random Smith. Ran, with his don't-worry-be-happy attitude and his brightly colored T-shirts, is one of the most positive people Fern knows. If only some of that positivity would rub off on Holden.
All in all, Fern's world is mostly okay - until the day it's turned upside down. When tragedy visits the household, each family member reacts in a different way. Their house becomes filled with every kind of sad emotion: Guilt. Anger. Regret. Fear. Helplessness. Worry.
It's hard to think about moving forward when all you want to do is change what happened. You can imagine a million different scenarios. You can drive yourself crazy with "what if" until you cry or scream or both. Sometimes, the crying and the screaming can help. But blaming yourself can't help, not when there's no one to blame - and that's what Fern has to learn. In order to be happy again, the members of her family will have to learn that leaning on each other doesn't make you weak - it makes you stronger, individually and collectively.
While reading this book, my heart went out to the family, and it stayed with them for the duration. I especially wanted to hug Holden, who was coming to terms with the fact that he liked boys but he didn't know how to tell his family about it, not in so many words. Fern loves her brother and wishes that she could help him truly be himself. Whenever Sara made rude remarks about Holden, I wanted to stand up for him. The scenes at the dinner table and the scenes in Holden and Fern's secret hiding spot were highly realistic.
The title of the book comes from Harry's Homemade Ice Cream and Family Restaurant. Anyone who has ever had to hang out at their parents' workplace - especially a family-owned business - will appreciate the after-school scenes that take place there.
Each of the kids in Fern's family was named after a different character out of a book. Fern got her name from Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. Holden was named after the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, while Sara comes from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. When their mom was pregnant for the fourth time, the kids got to pick out a name, and Fern's favorite book at the time was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. I love how Fern considers their namesakes vs. their real selves:
We all agreed that if we had to have a new brother, one like Charlie would be OK. We thought he'd be destined to be the kind of kid who'd get picked to ride in the great glass elevator. The sweet kid. The smart kid. The quiet kid. So far, it seemed like our Charlie wasn't quite fitting the bill. - Page 5
I wish Sara could be more like the Sara she was named after from A Little Princess. That Sara is nice to everyone. Even the mice in the attic. This Sara seems to find it necessary to look for everyone's weak spot. And then stomp on it. - Page 24
I wasn't supposed to read [The Catcher in the Rye] until I'm older, but I snuck my mom's paperback copy out of her room last year. [...] I understand why my mom likes the book and all, but I personally think it was a big mistake to name your kid after a boy who tries to kill himself, even if he is thoughtful and brilliant. - Pages 25-26
Fern thinks of herself more like Phoebe, Catcher-Holden's little sister, than of Web-Fern:
My mom always thought I'd be a good friend. A hero, like the Charlotte's Web Fern. I would like to be Holden's hero. I really would. I would like to stay his Phoebe forever, so he always has someone to come back to. But when he moves away from me this way, I feel like he's taking a step toward leaving us for good. - Page 56
I have attempted to write this review in such a way that I don't spoil anything for potential readers. I hope you'll read the book, and that you find it to be as sadly beautiful as I did.
See You at Harry's by Jo Knowles will be released on May 8th, 2012.
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