I hadn’t read a YA novel in a while when I saw When by bestselling author Victoria Laurie, so I chose it much more blindly than I normally choose a novel. I naively thought it might be a fun departure from the dark novels I’d been reading last Fall. Well the joke was on me because the subject matter in When has a very interesting but quite serious twist to it. What would you do if you knew the date everyone around you, including you, would die? Who seriously would want to know such a thing? It would have to color how you approached and interacted (or didn’t) with everyone around you. I get shivers just thinking about it. What would you do if it were you?
As long as Maddie can remember, she’s seen numbers above the foreheads of everyone around her and above her own forehead. When she was really little, she thought everyone saw those numbers. She had no clue what the numbers meant and neither did her parents when she proudly showed her first drawing of their family to them. As most parents do, they posted that drawing on the refrigerator for everyone to see and there it stayed for years, Maddie’s first artistic attempt. The numbers just seemed to them like an odd quirk of a small child’s imagination.
“I was probably three or four – four, I think – and he [Maddie’s dad] was showing me on a piece of paper how to draw numbers and what to call them.
I already knew my shapes – circle, square, triangle – so I picked up on the lesson really fast, and I thought Dad was finally revealing the secret. The secret why those odd little figures kept hovering right above everyone’s foreheads.
He taught me one, two, and three; I was so excited. But the elusive number was nine. We went through so many others to get to it, and finally it had a name. I remember repeating it out loud – the last piece of the puzzle finally in place – and I pointed to him triumphantly and shouted, ‘Nine-two-three-two-circle-circle-four!’
Then I laughed and laughed. I remember thinking he’d be so proud of me for saying his numbers back to him. But when I settled down, I saw that he had the most puzzled look on his face. He was smiling with me, but also confused.”
And then, when Maddie’s in first grade, those numbers begin to make an awful kind of sense. Maddie’s dad enters a building as part of his job and never comes out again – on the exact date that correlates with the numbers above his forehead in that early drawing. Maddie’s life is turned upside down. Her dad’s brother, an attorney, helps them wrangle with legal and financial matters but Maddie’s mom just flat out can’t cope and turns to alcohol to get through life. Maddie is left to grapple with not just her father’s death but the awful realization of what those numbers mean. No six year old can grasp something like that, much less come to terms with it.
“How come I can see the exact date that someone will die, but nothing else about the how, where, or why? What good does it do to know the when, if you can’t know at least one of the other three?
Also, why am I seemingly the only person on earth who can see those numbers? Why did fate choose me for such a cruel gift?”
“Most people want to know if they can change the date, if they can get more time. I tell them I don’t know. And that’s what kills me. It’d be easier if I knew that the dates couldn’t be changed, that they’re set in stone as solid as the gravestone they’ll be printed on. If I knew for sure that a death date couldn’t be changed then I think I’d feel less guilty about my dad.”
After her dad dies, they leave Brooklyn for a smaller town north of New York City called Poplar Hollow. Although they do okay with proceeds from her father’s wrongful death settlement funds, it’s hard because her mom’s gradual increased drinking means she can’t hold even a part-time job. That means money is always extremely tight.
Maddie’s now in high school and her mom talks her into seeing clients who want to know their own or others’ death dates. Although she resisted it at first, Maddie gets satisfaction when she’s able to help someone who’s at a life crossroads and trying to decide what they should do. If they know they only have a few years left, they may decide much differently than if they have a long life ahead of them.
“I’m just the messenger.
That’s what Ma says to me all the time when one of my clients doesn’t take the news so well. Knowing that there’s nothing I can do to help them get more time still doesn’t take the sting out of it, though.”
It’s particularly gratifying when she’s able to look at a photo and tell someone that a child or loved one gravely ill in the hospital will pull through and live many more years. That’s what just happened. A mother had been told her small son was dying and she wanted confirmation. She was thrilled to learn the boy will recover. What she was not so thrilled about, though, was that when Maddie saw her healthy oldest son’s photo she spontaneously told the mom that he would die the following the week. Although Maddie urged the mom to keep him at home at all costs on that date, in the slim hope it might save him, the mom was so furious that she stormed out, calling Maddie a fake and a fraud among other things.
When the woman’s oldest son disappears on his way home from school and is killed on the date Maddie predicted, the woman contacts the FBI to accuse sixteen-year-old Maddie of fraudulent practices and of being complicit in his murder. That’s horrifying enough but it gets worse when a second student goes missing in the same manner after Maddie sees that cheerleader’s death date at a football game. Now Maddie and her best friend, Stubby, are implicated in both murders and sensitive Stubby’s in jail. Meanwhile, their fellow high school students, not to mention the faculty, seem to have launched a witch hunt with Maddie as its target.
After spending a lifetime trying to hide her gift, how is Maddie going to prove to cynical types like the FBI that she not only has such a gift but that she and Stubby are innocent? There’s only one way – find the real killer. But can she do that without becoming a target herself?
Maddie is a very interesting character with a gift/curse I’d never want to have. I liked her immensely. She’s basically brought herself up since she was six because her mom was buried in a bottle and her dad was, well, buried for real. She’s also got a gift that she is trying to keep as invisible as possible, making it hard for her to make close friends. That she seems a bit naïve for her age vis-a-vis 21st century teens makes sense under those circumstances. I haven’t said much about Stubby in the synopsis; however, he’s loyal to a fault and it makes perfect sense that these two outliers would be best friends.
Victoria Laurie, who is known for her adult mysteries and thrillers, has created a less gory but quite intricate plot in When. It has lots of twists and turns in it, plenty to keep the reader guessing right up until the end – and the paranormal aspect is a fascinating touch. I think it will appeal to adults who aren’t into horrific thrillers as well as teens looking for a good mystery. I still think it would be awful to know people’s death dates. I believe that for the most part we’re better off not knowing and living our lives as if each day is a gift. I read When in one sitting because I was having such a good time trying to figure it all out that I didn’t want to put it down. If you love a good puzzle, When will be one to add to your TBR pile!
Can’t wait to read it?
When was published on January 13, 2015, so it’s available now from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). If you order it as an e-book, you can download it and have it to read instantly!
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