Disappointment. That is what I felt when I read this book. I liked it well enough and I liked the characters, but I was let down by the fact that I thought the story was going to be something other than what it was. From the description I thought I was going to get to see what happened with Penna and David after he got back from war. Even if it was just a glimpse while on his leave. Instead all I got to see unfold was Penna making friends and unraveling a family “mystery”. Don’t get me wrong, as I said I liked what I read, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I would have loved the book more if the story was focused on the aftermath and not a current time.
While He Was Away is the story of Penna and David. Penna has been traveling all over the place with her mom never really having a place to call home. It has only been the two of them so they have been able to come and go when they please. When Penna’s grandfather dies and leaves them not only her mom’s childhood home but also the family restaurant they finally settle down in her mom’s hometown. Penna keeps mostly to herself, having been hurt by boys in the past. She is very leery to trust anyone so she keeps a wall around her and holds on to it tightly. That is until she meets David. David changes everything for her. Immediately the two connect and begin an 11 month relationship. The only problem is, David has enlisted in the Army and is scheduled to ship off to Iraq for 15 months. Faced with the reality of being separated for longer then they have been together Penna and David try everything they can to maintain the bond they once shared. But when real life sets in things become complicated and the reality that everything isn’t all sunshine and roses like they once imagined it to be sets in.
The book is told entirely from Penna’s point of view which left me feeling conflicted. Penna was a great character. She was deeply introspective, not wanting to risk her heart again. Yet there was something that was accessible about her too. She wanted to get out there and make friends. Despite wanting to stay in her status quo and live the bubble she and David had created over the last year she wanted to find out more about her family’s past. This allowed me to more readily identify with her thus deepening my appreciation for her character. What I didn’t like about the book being in her point of view was the fact that I didn’t get to see what was in David’s head. He was a HUGE part of this story and the reason why Penna did some of the things she did and I felt like I didn’t get to know him as much as I would have liked. There was an opportunity to use him to open the emotional depth of the story up and it just didn’t happen. He had all of this baggage that just wasn’t delved into and that, for lack of a better word, disappointed me. I feel like the book would have been a knock out hit if it was first written from Penna’s point of view about the time David was away and then from David’s for the time he came back. Instead I was left wanting more.
What I enjoyed most was the setting of the book. I’m not one for rural areas myself, living in the city and all, but I could clearly picture what they were talking about in my head. I got the perfect Midwest feeling when Schreck describes the dust and the trees and the open spaces. Well, at least that is what I have always pictured the Midwest to look like anyway. I also liked the addition of the viaduct and the mural Penna painted there. It added a place of safety and comfort to the desolate feeling in Penna’s heart.
All in all the book was pretty good. I freely admit I shed a tear or two towards the end at a particularly emotional part that I didn’t see coming and that opened up an old wound. It was a quick story about what is left behind when a person you love goes off to war and how you deal with it. It was emotional and deeply thoughtful. I guess like I said, I just wanted more.