Curious Mom Discovers Sarah Dessen's "Clean Teen" Novel

BlogHer Review

There are several reasons I jumped at the chance to read and review Sarah Dessen's What Happened to Goodbye. First, Young Adult is a genre I don't typically read, and with a 15-year-old who is reading this category of novels, I wanted to get a taste of what she's reading (some say YA is not a true genre, but simply an indication of the age range that a book is targeted to, 12-18; to this I say, “whatever!”).

Second, a recent Wall Street Journal article quoted a mother who felt “thwarted and disheartened” by the YA selection in her local bookstore. The author of the article shared her strong opinion that Young Adult books are full of dark pathologies, profanity, and “distorted portrayals of what life is.” Again, the mother in me was curious.

Finally, I had enjoyed hearing Sarah Dessen speak at BookExpo America. This author of ten previous YA novels spoke about her passion for grabbing teen readers and keeping them turning pages. I wanted to see how she did this -- would she keep me turning the pages, too?

What Happened to Goodbye is a “clean teen” read. That is, there was no teenage sex, underage drinking (Mclean holds a beer cup at one point, but drinking is not a major storyline), profanity, mental or physical abuse.

In the two years since Mom's extra-marital affair led to divorce, Mclean has been living with Dad, reinventing herself every few months, as his job takes them to new towns. She not only changes her name, but adopts new habits, trying on personalities like her peers try on the latest fashions. She's a jock in one town, a drama queen in another, and honors student in the next.

Things change when they get to Lakeview. Mclean unintentionally lets down her guard and lets her true self shine, using her real name and bridging a gap between the “geeks” and the “in crowd.” Of course, there's a boy, too, a potential romantic interest; I'll admit I was cheering on Mclean, hoping she'd develop a relationship with Dave, and not slip on an alter-ego as a shield.

We learn that much of Mclean's identity issues stem from the anger she harbors toward her mother. Although I found it hard to believe that Mclean's parents could be so blind to her need for reassurance and acceptance, I can see that this is something that teens feel (yes, I can even remember feeling that way myself, a few decades back!).

Sarah Dessen did keep me turning the pages with this contemporary novel. The supplemental storylines kept it interesting and added some quirky characters and situations. There's a lot that a reader can connect with -- the reinvention of self, the fallout from the divorce, teen romance, and friendship. What Happened to Goodbye is a “safe” choice for a gift book, a discussable selection for a mother-daughter book group, and a comfort read for a typical teen with growing pains.


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