Shattered Family, Broken Child: What Happened to Goodbye
By Elena Maria Vidal on July 01, 2011
But in the real world, you couldn't really just split a family down the middle, mom on one side, dad the other, with the child divided equally between. It was like when you ripped a piece of paper into two: no matter how you tried, the seams never fit exactly right again. It was what you couldn't see, those tiniest of pieces, that were lost in the severing, and their absence kept everything from being complete.
— from Sarah Dessen's What Happened to Goodbye, p.165
On the surface, Sarah Dessen's What Happened to Goodbye appears to be another novel about shallow middle class American teenagers struggling with the angst of having everything. At its heart, however, the novel delicately but unflinchingly observes the pain of a young girl dealing with a bitter parental divorce and the overwhelming sense of displacement and disorder which ensue. The author allows us to see the world through the eyes of Mclean Sweet, whose mother's stormy affair caused the family to dissolve. Seeing her mother adopt a glamorous lifestyle with a wealthy new husband leaves Mclean feeling as if she has lost her entire world. And in many ways she has. Mclean no longer knows who she is, and experiments by taking on new personas every time she moves with her dad to another town.
As Mclean's teenage odyssey unfolds, the family she no longer has looms larger and larger for its very absence. When she eats one night with an eccentric but cheerful farm family, she experiences a level of happiness and completeness that seem to steady her a bit after just one evening. Even her new friend Dave's quirky, overprotective parents next door indubitably have contributed to his being the adventurous and sensitive fellow that he is. As annoying as parents may be, it is better to have them both around than not. The novel also gives an inside look into the restaurant business; the hectic and faltering Luna Blu becomes the center for most of the drama. Food and meals play no small part in the story, becoming the means of defining the nature of family, or the lack thereof.
The prose exudes an ordinary and mundane atmosphere yet so many passages breathe with the poetry of sorrow, of fun, of young love. While I found the conversations between the teenagers to be boring and flippant, even as I did when I was a teenager myself, I realized that I had to read between the lines to see what they were really saying. In the world of youth, sometimes the simplest, most innocent gestures say what the teenage vocabulary is unable to express. There is a strong emphasis on healthy friendships being a catalyst for healing in young lives that are broken. While the teens do not always understand the full extent of each other's problems, they seem to intuitively know how to help. Mclean, in her woundedness, is able to have compassion for another girl who seems lonely; she is able to draw the girl into the circle of activity. Unfortunately, it is not the way circumstances often pan out in the real world. That is why Dessen's books are wonderfully positive reads; they show young people all the potential and possibility that lies within reach.
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