Where I Want to Be by Adele Griffin
Release Date: April 21, 2005
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Once, Jane was the big sister, teaching Lily to play make believe and protecting her from thunderstorms. But then Lily grew up. She started making friends and dating boys, while Jane wanted to go on playing make believe forever. For Jane, the line between fantasy and reality had always blurred, whereas Lily lived for a future bright with expectation and change. Inevitably, the sisters found a gulf widening between them-Lily reveling in her newfound love, while Jane could only watch, frustrated, from the sidelines. How had her little sister managed to eclipse her?
Then tragedy struck. But the story was not over. . . .
Adele Griffin has crafted a spellbinding book, told in the alternating voices of two very different sisters dwelling on opposite sides of life and death, who are bravely trying to overcome the void and bring light to each other.
Outside my comfort zone
I must be a masochist because Adele Griffin keeps kicking me in the gut and I keep coming back for more. I mean this as a compliment (come on, you all know I have Adele Griffin pom poms). Her books make me feel on a gut-wrenchingly real level. Don’t be deceived by the tiny page counts: Adele knows how to make every single word count and come together to create a powerful story. Her choice to use alternating narratives (one first person, one third person) was a stroke of genius, subtly adding incredible depth, characterization and atmosphere that would not have been accomplished as well with a different narration style.
Falling into the contemporary genre and dealing with the aftermath of death, I wasn’t really into this book for a while. I’m a reader who likes happy stories and I primarily gravitate toward books with some sort of fantasy element and a lot of fast-paced action. It could be argued that WIWtB does have fantasy elements because half of the story is told from the perspective of the deceased sister, but at its core I think this really belongs in the contemp genre.
Given all that, I didn’t really love the story. The genre is just not my thing. And yet, you may notice I gave this book a four star rating. That is because, even though this isn’t my genre, I was so incredibly affected by my reading experience that WIWtB has become precious to me.
A letter to my heart
Not only was I sobbing at various points throughout the book, but I even had a dream inspired by it that caused me to wake up crying. I can only remember one other time in my entire life that I have cried in my sleep. I'm still pretty shaken up about that. Reading Where I Want to Be was a startling and deeply moving experience, to say the least.
Instead of connecting with the characters, I felt like the book was speaking directly to me. I do not have a mentally ill sister, I have never lost a sibling, and all but one of my grandparents are alive and well (I never really knew the other grandparent). So my experiences are not at all similar to those of the characters in this book.
But I do have a sister. I do have grandparents. I have experienced loss. At their core, the relationships and feelings described in this book are something I can relate with deeply. Jane’s relationship with her grandparents inspired my dream and a previously unplanned visit to my grandparents’ house. As I read about Jane and Lily and their complex, raw relationship, tears were spilling down my face and I was internally blubbering, “I-I-I wa-a-ant to se-e-e m-m-my si-i-iste-e-r-r!” I felt such an overpowering need to see my family and hug them and tell them how much I love them.
I didn’t realize how invested I was in the book until about halfway through. It sort of snuck up on me. One minute I was reading normally and then the next thing I knew my heart was in a death-grip and I was struggling to see the words through my tears.
This isn’t just a book about grief. While there is that, and the characters do grapple with emotions surrounding a death, there is also much more here. It is a book about coming to terms with and accepting the people we love as they are, even if that is different from how we wish they were, and coming to terms with mixed feelings as a result of this reality. But really, it's even more than that, and it's never preachy. Adele so sensitively and accurately cuts to the heart of emotional issues and human experiences that I often wonder, does she have a secrete doctorate in psychology?
I want to point out the page numbers again. One hundred sixty. That’s it. That this book contains such incredible weight, depth, and poignancy despite its tiny page count is a testament to Adele’s magnificent ability to write. Where I Want to Be will silence those who believe YA books are incapable of capturing the maturity or seriousness of adult literature. On a purely writing level, her sentences are the kind that make me to stop to consider their beauty and read aloud just to hear and feel them.
In another author’s hands I don’t think I would have enjoyed this book all that much. I didn’t particularly like the characters (though I want to wrap them all up in hugs to comfort and shelter them) and the plot didn’t grab me (remember, not my genre). In Adele’s hands, however, this book transcended its bounds and touched me at my core. Some books introduce you to characters you will cherish, others take you on adventures, and a rare few reach beyond the fictional world to affect who you are as a person. For me, Where I Want to Be is that latter gem.
If contemporary and sad books aren’t your thing, try not to automatically dismiss this book. I would have done that if I hadn’t already read and loved two of her other books, and I would have been missing out. For fans of the genre, I can’t imagine this book not soaring to the top of your list. Also worth mentioning, Adele was nominated for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for this book, and it is clear why.