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“What Happened to Goodbye” by Sarah Dessen

18 May

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

My love of Sarah Dessen knows no bounds (check out my reviews of "Along for the Ride," "Lock and Key," "Just Listen," and "Keeping the Moon;" raves all!). For my money, Sarah is one of the finest YA authors around, always providing fresh insight into the classic teen coming of age / falling in love story. Sarah's latest novel, "What Happened to Goodbye," while perhaps not her strongest work, is still miles ahead of most teen literature out there. It's a winning, beautifully written novel that is sure to become a favorite of Sarah's legions of fans.

When we meet Mclean Sweet, she and her divorced dad, Gus, are settling into their fourth new home in two years. After her folks' contentious divorce — mom cheated with the head coach of dad's most beloved university basketball team — Mclean chose to travel with restaurant consultant Gus instead of remaining home with mom, a new stepfather, and twin half siblings. Mclean uses each move with Gus to reinvent herself, alternately playing the roles of theatre chick, athlete, and activity joiner. Mclean even uses a new first name in each town to go with each new persona. The result? Everything is temporary for Mclean; she forms no real ties or attachments, and she leaves behind so-called friends without so much as a backward glance. Even worse? By always pretending to be someone else, Mclean has lost the girl she really is.

In Lakeview, Gus's job is to reinvent Luna Blu, a local Italian restaurant managed by the overwhelmed but well meaning Opal. Inadvertently, Mclean keeps her own name and much of her true self at school, the restaurant, and with her charmingly weird next-door neighbor Dave. It's a new experience, just being Mclean, since there's nothing and no one to hide behind. She also befriends the delightfully bossy Deb as well as bickering but kind best pals Riley and Heather. As the kids embark on an outrageously overdone large-scale model project — and as Mclean slowly lets Dave into her closely guarded world — Mclean realizes she is becoming connected to these people and this town. She cares now, more than she ever intended. So what happens when she has to leave again?

I won't give much else away, because the joy of this book is discovering what ultimately happens to Mclean, Dave, Gus, and the troubled Luna Blu restaurant. I can easily discuss the many things I loved about this book, which I will do in no particular order:

* No great surprise here — this is Sarah Dessen, folks! — but Mclean has such great depth and emotional complexity. She's essentially a parent to her father, soothing his wounded heart, arranging their moves, and getting them properly settled into each new town. Yet, Mclean is also just a high school senior who, beneath this veneer of capability, is absolutely devastated by her mother's infidelity and her parents' divorce. Mclean is so emotionally disconnected from mom that she can only manage unreturned phone calls and carefully calculated, obscenely polite conversations with her. What Mclean doesn't realize is that by separating herself from her mom and her picture perfect former life she has also isolated herself from her peers and father. When Mclean finally allows herself to truly experience all that pain, betrayal, and loneliness, it's incredibly moving.

* Dave. Oh, I could write a lot about Dave. Yes, he's a standard YA love interest. He's sensitive, kind, smart, funny, cute in an offbeat way, quirky … you know the type. He could easily have stepped out of the pages of a John Green novel. But Dave also has believable conflicts with his parents about his boy genius status, a sweet friendship with Riley, and a slew of quiet, touching moments with Mclean. Very well done.

* The three main adults in this novel (Gus, Mclean's mom Kate, and Opal) are not just window dressing, thrown into a scene to stir up conflict only to disappear and leave the real action to the teenagers. These adults are all interesting characters with their own shadings, depth, and shortcomings. I thought Kate, in particular, was well developed. A cheating wife / shrill mother can quickly devolve into painful stereotype, which never happened here. Just as Mclean does, we eventually see beyond Kate's missteps to find a brokenhearted mother longing for her daughter.

* As always, Sarah creates a precise, evocative setting. We walk the streets of Lakeview with Mclean and understand exactly how this small, nondescript town can hold so much promise. There's something beautiful and alive about its alleys after a snowstorm, its starry skies on a clear night, its cozy woods surrounding Riley's house, its failing neighborhood restaurant and overly cheery local coffeehouse. The uber model project — which recreates the town in painstaking, oversized detail — only adds to this sense of community and place. Each building, street, and house clicked into the model is another chance for both us and Mclean to feel more at home in Lakeview. Similarly, when Mclean lovingly describes the shore town she often visited with her mom, we understand how surf, salt, sun, and freedom can transport her to happier times. Later, when Mclean grudgingly visits another beach town with Kate (shout out to Colby, Last Chance, and Heidi's bikini shop!), we readers are swept along on Mclean's same wave of nostalgia and longing.

* Sarah is an expert at portraying emotional moments with simple grace and lyricism. My only real complaint with this novel lies in its rushing past some of these scenes instead of allowing us to savor their impact a bit more. For example, presenting the dramatic culmination of Mclean's journey in a flashback undermines its intensity. I wish we could have stayed in the moment and enjoyed it more! Still, the depictions of the quiet beauty of friendship, parental devotion, and first love are real treasures here. When Mclean sees Dave's heartfelt messages for her in the completed town model … oy! That's good stuff. 🙂

"What Happened to Goodbye" is a perfect summer novel for readers looking for an understated coming of age story with well-developed characters, a charming setting, flawed but involved parents, and, of course, some kicking romance. There's the occasional bit of strong language here, but nothing that would offend an average middle schooler. "What Happened to Goodbye" is out now. I loved it. Go read it! :-p

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Posted by on May 18, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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