Friday, October 2, 2015

GOODBYE STRANGER


Review of GOODBYE STRANGER by REBECCA STEAD
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I have yet to read Stead’s now famous middle reader novel WHEN YOU REACH ME (or LIAR & SPY), but I understand from her most recent book GOODBYE STRANGER why she has such a devoted (and expanding) fan-base. She writes my favorite kind of stories, those rooted in character. She doesn’t hook with wild plotlines; the exact same tale would be yawn-worthy without characters who feel so real from the first page.

The book alternates between four perspectives: a trio of close middle school girls and a mysterious, unnamed high school girl. The trio consists of Bridge (short for Brigit), Tab (short for Tabitha), and Em (short for Emily), all starting seventh grade. Bridge survived being hit by a car in third grade, but lately she’s consumed by something a nurse said as she was recovering: “You must have been put on this earth for a reason, little girl, to have survived.” Tab falls in love (intellectually) with her new feminist teacher and all her ideals about civil disobedience. However, Tab’s still learning the line between parroting someone else’s values and defining your own. Em doesn’t look like the other seventh graders. She hit puberty early, in a major way, and even the older boys notice. One goes so far as to request a certain kind of photo. At first she knows better, but as they trade texts and she gets to know him she starts wondering what the big deal is with one little photo. Meanwhile, the high school girl’s story takes place all on one day, where everyone else’s stories eventually end. We don’t know who she is, only that she skipped school because she’s avoiding the consequences of a reckless mistake.

Every single character in this book - middle schooler, teen, parent, and teacher; girls and boys; lead, supporting, or peripheral character - feels tangibly real. The dialogue pops with authenticity, especially the voices of those straddling childhood and adulthood. Stead has a remarkable talent for bringing even the most mundane scenes to life with simple sincerity.

A lot of the insight (and you’ll find plenty) in this book almost feels like an inside joke. Stead sprinkles her story with the strange things we do in real life. Such as when Tab texts Bridge to call her, and Bridge does - but asks, exasperated, why text someone to call you rather than just call that someone? Much of the wisdom is new in phrasing rather than content. Such as Em’s mom’s explanation for how she and Em’s father can love each other for years and then file for divorce. Say people have 9,000 things, Em’s mom says. They meet someone and 1,000 of their things seem to match up, so they think they’re a great fit. Then over time they learn about more of each other’s things and some of them don’t align so well after all. 

I didn’t like the second person viewpoint for the high school character. I think second person is incredibly difficult to pull off and to do so there needs to be a strong case for how it improves a story. Well, the second person choice here mostly hides the identity of the high school student, which I don’t think needed to be a big revelation for later anyway.

The ending satisfies, but frankly doesn’t feel like the highlight of the book. So many books drag in the middle, but this one soars in the middle while the ending feels more like a sad necessity. I do wish, however, that the book ended with the last chapter instead of the epilogue that doesn’t really focus on (at least what I perceived as) the heart of the novel.

After reading GOODBYE STRANGER I know I need to read Stead’s other books as soon as I can. Her character and relationship driven style plays right into my reading taste.

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