No Easy Answers About What Happened to Goodbye
Hello? What happened to goodbye?
These are both queries, yet the title of Sarah Dessen's new book, What Happened to Goodbye, appears to be a statement. There’s no question mark, leading one to assume Dessen is interested in telling a story, not necessarily offering up any answers.
Her tale focuses on Mclean Sweet, a high school senior named after a famous college basketball coach whom her father idolized. Mclean is recovering, with limited success, from the abrupt betrayal of her mother’s infidelity, which led to her parents’ divorce. Choosing to live with her father comes with a set of complications that involve moving around, making it impossible for Mclean to develop any lasting friendships. She develops an ability to reinvent herself in each new town her father’s job takes them, giving herself different first names and disparate goals, in an attempt to prove that it is she who is in charge of her life, not her mother.
Her mother, meanwhile, has remarried and started a new family with the birth of twins, even as she tries, and fails, to continue a relationship with her first born. Mclean’s father, Gus, continues his work for EAT INC, a restaurant conglomerate interested in retooling its failing eateries. When Gus moves in to take over Luna Blu, a once family-owned café in a university town, the staff is none too eager to heed his advice, sinking ship or not. Mclean, ready to introduce herself as “Liz”, is taken off guard one evening by Dave, her new neighbor, and suddenly feels comfortably authentic, telling Dave her real name. This leads to more honest relationships with some girls at her new school, including Deb-with-all-her-ducks-in-a-row, and Riley, Dave’s best friend. After Riley tells Mclean that Dave “likes” her, events unfold gently if predictably. Dave and Mclean grow closer even as her temporary status is revealed.
Dessen is skilled at writing characters easy enough to imagine, and creative in the set pieces and situations she uses to move her story forward. A subplot involving the construction of a miniature model of the university town helps provide some glue in joining other elements of the story together. But while Dessen is comfortable writing about people and situations emotional but not far-fetched, she appears uneasy with taking chances and putting us on the proverbial edge of our seats. What Happened to Goodbye involves no major plot element, no obstacle so complicated, no emotion so deep, that we’re moved to feverishly turn the pages. It’s an easy read, as too many young adult novels are, and not a challenging one. Not everything in Dessen’s book resolves itself predictably though; it’s refreshing to have a conclusion tied in a messy, frayed bow. But like one of Dessen’s previous novels, The Truth About Forever, little is required of the reader other than a desire to pass the time. What Happened to Goodbye won’t strain credulity, but neither will it stay with you past the final page.