I give this book about a family suffering a great loss...a 52/100.
Have you ever watched a show or read a book and thought that certain ideas or conflicts don't really mix together very well? For me, that was See You At Harry's by Jo Knowles. It's trying to be a sweet, wholesome book about grief and healing after losing someone, but the things that happen right before it just feel so out of place and shoehorned in that when the big twist happens, you get a sense of whiplash. Like you're reading a romance and then boom, action and everything before that just gets shoved to the side like it never even happened. I wanted to like See You At Harry's, but I came out of this book feeling rather blah. So the story is about a family that owns a famous family restaurant. The youngest daughter, Fern, wishes her family would pay more attention to her instead of her annoying toddler aged brother Charlie. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes, and Fern feels she's wholly responsible for it.
I like stories about death, the grieving process, and healing. I find them interesting to read about when done well, and in that aspect, I think the book's handling of Fern's loss and the fallout from it was realistic, authentic, and decently well written. Yeah, I should probably let you know, a young child dies in this book. I know a lot of people don't like reading about children dying, and that's fine, but I've read/seen enough of that stuff to become desensitized to it, so I personally have no problem with it if it's written well, and I think it was portrayed decently here. The easy to read but still engaging prose helped as well. The authoress does a good job in putting you in Fern's head and making her grief and sadness feel real and raw. Unfortunately in this case, the prose and the plot about Fern's family coping with the loss of one of their own are the only good things about this book, because everything else about it really falls flat.
And it comes down to the fact that the first half of the book is just not interesting at all, and doesn't seem to mesh well with the second half of it. I mean, don't get me wrong, there needs to be some levity before bringing in serious conflict. If a story tried too hard to just have bad things happen to its characters, without doing things that would actually make us care about them first, it wouldn't be any fun to read. But the first half of See You At Harry's and its second half feel like two very different books. The first half focuses on Fern, her family, her dad's wild and crazy attempts to promote his restaurant, and her brother Holden's insecurity about coming out as gay to his family. When they lose one of their own, the book suddenly shifts to a story about grief and healing, which isn't bad, but with the way the book transitions between its two halves, it felt like a very sudden genre shift. Think of it this way: you're on an elevator that's going up fairly slowly at first, but then all of a sudden it accelerates and starts speeding upward like a race car. It doesn't help that everything that happens in the first half of the book is just pushed to the side until the very end.
But poor transition from one conflict to another isn't the book's only problem. The biggest one happens to be its cast of characters, or rather, anyone who's not Fern or Holden. Those two are okay at best, but not really the most three-dimensional. Everyone else, on the other hand, is really bland and one-note, or unintentionally unsympathetic, with the biggest offender being Sara. The book wants you to see her as this friendly but occasionally grumpy teenage girl who is totally okay with her brother being gay. That's fine. What's not fine is the fact that the book is steadfast with this portrayal, but in her very first scene, she drops a homophobic slur towards Holden multiple times and while called out on it, she never apologizes for it. Yeah, if you want to make a character likeable and supportive, don't have her drop slurs! I learned that the hard way myself! Fern's parents are also little more than one-note stereotypes, with the father often flip-flopping between being so clueless that he's willing to humiliate his entire family all for the sake of the restaurant and randomly doubling down on his son for wanting to go out with a guy (Though, to be fair, his objections aren't because of Holden being gay, but because he's dating a guy three years older than him who goes to a different school. Yeah, I actually agree with his concerns there). The mom is completely useless most of the time, preferring to go off and meditate and scold Fern for every perceived slight than actually be there for her in any way, and though she changes somewhat near the end, it's not enough to make me feel like she earned it, which she didn't, by the way. Also, Gray, Holden's so-called boyfriend, didn't seem to serve much purpose other than to be Holden's chauffeur and doesn't even do much of anything! He was just wasted as a character.
Overall, the first half of the book is mind-numbingly boring, with the second half somewhat redeeming it, but not by much. The characters other than Fern and Holden get next to no meaningful development, or in the case of Sara, try to force the readers to like them when they've done next to nothing to earn or deserve love from readers whatsoever. The way it tries to juggle two plotlines just feels off, like it just wanted to leap from one plotline to another without making any effort to stick the landing, and it just seems to drag on. The book has some potential, but it doesn't try to use it much, and as well written as the plotline about losing a loved one is, it felt like Jo Knowles just threw it in there just so she wouldn't have to write more about Holden's subplot. If you want to transition from one plotline to another, at least make the effort to make it make sense instead of having it just happen out of nowhere! There's a reason stuff like build-up and foreshadowing exist!!
Not the worst book I've read, but I can name several books that tackle their subject matter and multiple plotlines better than See You at Harry's tried to do.