Sunday, July 10, 2011

What Happened To Goodbye, by Sarah Dessen

A new Sarah Dessen novel is a magical moment to be savored....

As much as I love Dessen's writing -- a beautiful combination of self-reflection and southern charm -- it is quite valid to point out that she isn't original. Her last four novels have basically followed the same formula: older teen girl with an unusual uniquely Southern name (Mclean, in this case), has odd obsessive father and overbearing mother. The girl's intellectual but not into school, makes friends easily, and meets moody oddball boy early (and then sort of dates him). The boy will make an interesting conversation partner, but won't really play much of a role in the story beyond being a useful resource. It's a successful formula, but not terribly suspenseful and the books have basically all been little variations on the theme.

The little twists this time are that Mclean has lived a nomadic life recently and not bothered to put down roots. Each time they move, Mclean changes her entire personality and style, and even changes her name. It's worked OK for her, but this time things are different and the right combination of friends (and boy) convinces Mclean that things have to change. It isn't anything that Mclean can't work through with some talk therapy and some bonding with her new friends.

In comparison with other Dessen novels, the troubles with mother are a bit more intense than usual. There's good reason for this as Mom bears the responsibility for cheating on Dad and abandoning her family. As a result, Mclean is at the center of a nasty child custody battle that continues on and off through the story. Divorced parents are not new territory, but this novel seems to dwell on it a bit more than its predecessors. Still, the basic dynamic is informed by Mom's selfishness and daughter's exasperation. Once they can finally start talking and listening to each other, you know that everything will work out alright.

What makes Dessen's books work well is her sense of detail and the odd mix of subthemes that are effortlessly woven in (ranging in this case from model building to astronomy, restaurant management to food psychology, etc.). She also remains the champion of YA poetic prose, creating writing that puts most contemporary YA verse writers to shame. It is probably only because that skill is recognized (and translated to commercial success) that she is underappreciated by professionals, but can someone please tell me why she hasn't won a Printz?

All that said, I've had trouble really outlining what makes this particular book special, because frankly it doesn't stand out. It is an excellent book but it differs so little from her recent offerings that it is almost interchangeable with Just Listen or Lock and Key. I miss the gut wrenching narrative of Dreamland or Someone Like You, or even the light nostalgia of That Summer.

Finally, it seemed like even Dessen got tired of this book. The last 100 pages of this novel are obviously rushed and forced. The pace goes haywire as the narrator starts to summarize and jump forward. Perhaps it is time to start to write something different?

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