Published: March 29 2012 by Doubleday
My rating: 4.5/5
Goodreads Summary: Russell Ammiano could not be more happy to have left his tiny Kansas town of Norville—or Nowhere-ville, as he calls it—behind forever. But on the morning of September 11th, 2001, a phone call makes him late to work. It’s from a neighbor in Norville. Russell’s mother has passed away suddenly. Russell must come home immediately, because someone has to take care of his older brother, Ben. Russell books a flight. But before he can even head for the airport, two planes hit the World Trade Center, where Russell worked. Russell would have been there, if not for the phone call. The life he’s so carefully built as a successful young ad executive comes tumbling down, literally. He hitchhikes all the way home. His 30-year-old brother Ben, brain damaged in a childhood accident, hasn’t changed a bit. And he never will. Russell has to try to figure out how his mother took care of Ben, without any “manual” of instructions. It’s not easy.
The town is a little different. Three of Russell’s high school friends are National Guard, and soon to ship out to Afghanistan. The old dry cleaners has been replaced by a bakery owned by naturalized Egyptian Nazir El Sayed and his daughter Anat. Russell befriends the two, and finds himself caught in the middle when post-9/11 fervor targets them for abuse. But the situation is further complicated when Russell falls for Anat, and she for him, challenging her traditional Egyptian upbringing.
...and the award for the amount of humanity woven into a book goes to Catherine Ryan Hyde. Based on my experience with the previous and first-to-me book by this author, Don't Let Me Go, I've had only a faint idea of what to expect: "small" people waging their everyday battles, love and devotion, strength of human spirit and generosity in abundance. Our heroes in When You Were Older are Russell, who worked in one of the towers and thought he had left his small town far behind; his brother Ben who sustained a brain damage as child and is incapable of living alone after mother's death; Anat and her father who, being of Egyptian origin, become targets for people to take out their frustrations toward everything Middle Eastern; their neighbors and friends, some of them sent to war never to come back.
Catherine looks at a fistful of people in a small town in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy and describes what probably went through people's minds, wherever they were in the world in that moment. It's a complex tale of tolerance, guilt, forgiving and love. When everything changes in a matter of minutes, Russell must deal with the loss of his new life that burned down in the debris of the towers and return to a life he ran away from. This book is about trying to make sense and reason with what happened while confronted with another life-changing tragedy. The author does it with much grace and warmth and bit by bit restores your faith in humanity.
Maybe in all that Russell comes out as a bit too perfect. So does the rest of the cast. There's a happy ending after all the obstacles have been heroically overcome. But in this case, it works. It's not a book to provoke hate, but to promote optimism. Read it when you need something uplifting, a moral boost, and a book that makes you happy.
The moment I received the ARC, I took a peek at the first page. I didn't stop until I finished the whole book in one day. Parting from the book, even for a few minutes was nearly a torture, filled with the yearning to be back. You know, that fantastic feeling that you only get from great books. As soon as I finished it, I had the need to start again and I'll definitely reread it some time soon. This is my new feel-good book.