Friday, June 28, 2013

Young Adult Fiction: What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen

I am just now hopping on the Sarah Dessen train. With her new book, The Moon and More, published on June 4th, I decided to start with her previous release, What Happened to Goodbye. My fingers were crossed that I wouldn't be stuck with an annoying, whiny, and entitled adolescent narrator talking about how unfair life is for 400 pages. What I got instead was both surprising and refreshing.

The Situation: McLean Sweet and her father Gus have just moved to Lakeview, North Carolina in the middle of her senior year. Normally it would be a pretty difficult thing for a teenager to finish out their last few months of high school in a brand new town, but for McLean, she just plans to do what she has done in every other new town she has ever moved to. Because of the nature of her father's job as a restaurant consultant, this will be McLean's fourth move in two years. She's become a pro at it, even beyond just knowing what to pack and how to pack it. She even knows what it will take to make a clean break if she has to move again, with no hurt feelings, for herself and anyone she has formed a relationship with.

The Problem: McLean ends up breaking her number one personal rule almost immediately, which is to go by some variation of her middle name (Elizabeth), and never her real first name. Her system of interrupting her teachers on her first day and correcting them is interrupted during homeroom, and somehow she never recovers. Like a domino effect, not only are people calling her by her first name (something that even surprises her father), but soon she finds herself having made real friendships and forming real bonds with people, not the least of which is her sweet if not socially awkward neighbor Dave. And with the knowledge that she could be packing up and moving within as little as eight weeks, McLean becomes uneasy as she lets people get to know the real her; something she never does as she has been three different people in the last three cities she has moved to. Oh, and her mother, whom McLean blames for the divorce and her current nomad status, won't stop calling and wanting her to visit. And when McLean lets her anger get the best of her and lashes out, Mom has no problem bringing in the lawyers to revisit the custody agreement. Even though McLean doesn't quite know who she is in yet another new town, she knows she won't be able to be who she was if she were to move back to her hometown with her mom.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that deals with the all-too-common issue of the effects of divorce on the kids. When McLean's parents divorced, she decided to not to stay with her mom and stepdad in her hometown, but instead joined her dad in moving from city to city every few months, constantly readjusting to a new lifestyle and new friends instead of ever really settling down. This further leads to McLean's issues with identity that first surface during the divorce, as everything she has known and has been used to is taken from her. McLean also doesn't feel like she has anywhere she can call "home," or a stable group of people she can refer to as "family." Some of her conversations with her mother are definitely cringe-worthy. And while some readers (including myself) would be cheering her on to cut ties and move on, McLean also reminds us, mostly through memories, that this woman is still her mother, and things just aren't that simple.

My Verdict: Again, this is my first Dessen novel, so I don't know if this is just what she does and how she does it every time, but for me, this novel was so incredibly refreshing to read and a lot of fun. The writing was straightforward and honest, and the narrator, McLean, wasn't the adolescent nightmare I sometimes anticipate encountering when I pick up a new young adult novel. Yes McLean was angry, and bitter, and resentful, and suffering from the effects that come from the decisions adults around her had made, but she wasn't annoying about it and didn't alienate the reader. Instead, I found myself caring about her and really cheering her on. And Dessen kept the novel interesting without making it seem unrealistic or far-fetched. Now I am certainly excited to read The Moon and More when it comes out. I am curious to check out past Dessen novels as well to see how they stack up against each other.

Favorite Moment: When McLean and her new friends go over to Riley's house for family dinner. First of all, it is exactly the kind of southern home-cooked meal I have grown up with and love. We're talking fried chicken, homemade macaroni and cheese...the works. Even McLean, who has a chef for a dad and has eaten some of the greatest food that America's best restaurants has to offer, admits that the dinner Riley's mom cooks is the absolute best she has ever had. Of course, her observation that this is the first time in a long time that she has sat down to a real family dinner may contribute to that, even if it isn't her family.

Favorite Character: I adore Deb, the super spazzy and always surprising but lovable outsider who finds her way into McLean's small group of friends. She is that girl who is always way too eager to make you feel welcome in whatever new environment you've entered into. She's really sweet, and sometimes a bit intense, but always a great friend to have around.        

Favorite Quote: "I cleared my throat, looking into that fire in front of me. The logs were perfectly shaped, the fake flames flickering. Pretty yes, but no real warmth there. Just an illusion, but you didn't realize that until you were up close and still felt cold" (P. 267).  This quote fits into this book in so many different ways that to explain them all would not only make this post much longer than it needs to be, but it would also completely spoil the entire story.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Sarah Ockler's Bittersweet, mostly because it also deals with the effects of divorce, and has a large amount of the action set in a restaurant. Many readers and critics have compared Ockler and Dessen, and I do see the connection, but they are also two different writers with their own styles.

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