Friday, June 9, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner

This week we continue the Door Stop Novel YA Fest - where a young adult novel will be covered every week through the month of June - with Jeff Zentner's Goodbye Days. In late 2016, I read and reviewed Zentner's debut novel The Serpent King, which was nominated for Best Young Adult Fiction in the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards. For his follow-up, Zentner continues with Tennessee as the setting, but this time moving from a small town to the big city.

The Situation: Summer vacation is coming to a close, which means Carver Briggs will soon return to Nashville Arts Academy. He and his three best friends, Blake, Eli, and Mars, will be finishing their senior year of high school, while focusing on their different creative strengths and generally being teenage boys. But when his friends are on their way to pick Carver up after a movie, tragedy strikes, and all three boys are killed in a horrific car accident. Now Carver's world, which was once filled with laughter, love, creativity, and support, feels empty, hollow, joyless, and oppressive. Losing his three best friends in one single motion, and right before senior year is supposed to start, is bad enough. Knowing that the friends and family of the victims, as well as many in the community, point the blame squarely at Carver himself, makes it so much worse.

The Problem: The car accident occurred moments after Carver texts Mars, asking him where they are, and to text him back. Mars was mid-text when his car slammed into the back of a truck, going 70 miles per hour. With some people, it is easy for Carver to see where he stands with them, and what they think of him. Adair, Eli's twin sister, glares at him every chance she gets. And Mars's father, a powerful judge, wants to bring criminal charges against him. But not everyone holds Carver accountable. Blake's grandmother even asks him to be a pallbearer at the funeral, and later asks to spend time with him in an attempt to better know her grandson. The day they spend together will come to be known as a Goodbye Day. And while it may achieve its purpose in that they remember Blake while also learning new things about him, it does not ease Carver's guilt, and it does not mean the panic attacks will stop. It certainly does nothing to stop those who blame him from wanting to make him pay.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in Nashville, Tennessee, and mostly focuses on four students at Nashville Arts Academy. Carver and his three friends all had to apply to attend, with each one having a different creative focus. While Carver is a writer, Eli is a musician, Mars sketches and draws, and Blake has an incredible sense of humor, one that has brought him a massive amount of followers and subscribers on YouTube. While the novel opens just after the car accident and before Blake's funeral, it occasionally flashes back to moments the boys shared together. Sometimes it is all four of them, and sometimes it is just two or three. Carver remembers his best times with his friends, while also doing his best to move forward, which is naturally difficult. It is one thing for Carver to have survivor's guilt, and it is another thing for Carver to blame himself for what happened. It becomes something else entirely when others agree with him, and they want justice. Throughout the course of the novel, Carver will be called a murderer, be told he should go to jail, and that it is not right that he profit's from his friend's death. But the title of the novel comes from the Goodbye Days he will spend remembering his friends and the people they were. 

My Verdict: The rumors were true...this book is heartbreaking. But given the premise, that is to be expected. And it is not heartbreaking to the point of lacking any and all joy or hope. Dealing with the deaths of not one, not two, but three of your best friends is a terrible thing. But everyone also wants to blame you for it? Yikes. I anticipated that I would go through the usual frustrations that I normally do with YA novels, mostly when it comes to teenagers acting like, well, teenagers and mostly being needlessly brutal and vicious, while the victim holds back and does not say anything and works through their own stuff. But this book puts a slight twist on the formula, adding incredible amounts of grief to pretty much everyone involved, as there is almost no one that was not touched by one of the deceased. Zentner manages to present the less than straightforward emotions that come with this sort of situation, especially for Carver. No one is completely in the wrong, and no is completely in the right either, except maybe Blake's grandmother. So instead of being frustrated with the characters, I spent most of the book just grieving with them and wanting everyone to find peace. It's an emotional ride as well as a great story.

Favorite Character: Georgia, Carver's older sister, is the kind of older sibling we all need. Ready to defend her little brother at every turn, and also provide a wet willy, she seems to be the character with her feet most firmly on the ground, despite the terrible tragedy they are all dealing with and the temptation to go completely off the rails.

Favorite Moment: When Nana Betsy, Blake's grandmother, shares Blake's favorite meal with Carver (fried chicken and cornbread) at the close of their Goodbye Day.

Favorite Quote: "I had to teach him that he can be the son of a judge, but if he acts the way young white men do - the way his friends do - he will be treated more harshly." - Judge Edwards, Mars's father.  

Recommended Reading: Zentner's first novel, The Serpent King, is set in a small town, and deals with grief of a different sort. Also, its main character seems to make a quick appearance in Goodbye Days.            

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