Release Date: May 1st 2012
Source: Raincoast Books
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Buy It: Book Depository
When Penna Weaver's boyfriend goes off to Iraq, she's left facing life without him. As summer sets in, Penna tries to distract herself with work and her art, but the not knowing is slowly driving her crazy. Especially when David stops writing. She knows in her heart he will come home. But will he be the same boy she fell in love with?This was a story that started with a main character I didn't especially like but ended with one I definitely respected, and I think that subtle but authentic growth is the shinning aspect of While He Was Away.
That said, there are some things that really bothered me about the story. For one, time passes strangely, like Penna will say something isn't as bad as it used to be when she's talking about the past two days, or that the tattoo has suddenly healed when yesterday it was covered with a gauze bandage. In another instance she talks about how absent her mom has been– "It burns me that I've waited for Linda, wondering where she is."– when really she only didn't come home one night. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be teenage exaggeration, but it got on my nerves and didn't help my sympathy for Penna.
Also, when there is even one statement that is factually wrong (as far as I can determine, and from my own personal experience) it really bothers me in a novel and makes me doubt how probable the rest of the story is. In While He Was Away this statement is when a character in the novel breaks a bone, and Penna is told "They have to wait to get all the food out of her system before they set the bone." I've had a few broken bones, and I even did Googling to check, and I've never heard of somebody having to wait to have a bone set because they ate a meal– it seems like cruel and ridiculous punishment. I'm not a doctor and I could be wrong, but it was the sort of thing that nagged at me even after I finished the novel.
Both those complaints are minor in light of what really bothered me about this novel: Penna's relationship with David. I just didn't believe it. Maybe it's because he's around for less than 24 hours in the book, but even the flashbacks didn't give me a good feel for him as a character and made it difficult to care about him on Penna's behalf... which is sorta the point of the book. Penna herself is annoying because of her dependency on David, but as I mentioned, there is some really strong character growth near the end of the novel, and it was great to see her become her own person. There was also a bit of a twist near the end regarding David and Penna, that I definitely didn't expect.
I really liked the interactions between Penna and the friends she makes, and the grandmother storyline was interesting, when it came to her family history not her own personal romance which was so incredibly cheesy at points that it felt nauseating and also way too convenient to be believable. Penna had some darker past hinted at a few times, and I wished it had been developed further because I think it would have given her character the depth it felt like she was lacking, at least at the beginning.
Another aspect of While He Was Away that I liked was the relationship between Penna and her mom Linda, which was complicated and broken at times, but ultimately very powerful. Penna's relationship with her mom was one of the major ways she grew, and I was pretty touched by how things worked out for them. The Oklahoma setting was also well written and unique to read about. However, in the end, it was Penna herself that saved the novel. Somehow Penna slowly blossomed into a strong and confident young woman by the end of While He Was Away, one that I never could when I first began reading but the transformation that Schreck wrote was admirable, believable, and something I really enjoyed reading about.