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Not Just for Kids: 'What Happened to Goodbye' by Sarah Dessen

In 'What Happened to Goodbye,' Sarah Dessen again delves into the lives of coming-of-age characters. Mclean Sweet faces her parents' divorce while fitting into a new town and high school.

May 08, 2011|By Susan Carpenter | Los Angeles Times
  • Illustration for review of "What Happened to Goodbye" by Sarah Dessen.
Illustration for review of "What Happened to Goodbye" by Sarah… (Reuben Munoz / Los Angeles…)

What Happened to Goodbye

A Novel

Sarah Dessen

Viking: 416 pp., $19.99, ages 12 and up

Sarah Dessen is something of a rock star in young adult fiction. Her bestselling coming-of-age novels are warmly written explorations of teens in transition that are, by turns, questioning, humorous and hopeful.

With her 10th novel, "What Happened to Goodbye," Dessen continues to mine the teen psyche, following high schooler Mclean Sweet from town to town with her father. Mclean was a "normal girl in a normal town" until her parents divorced in a scandalous breakup prompted by her mother, who fell for a famous basketball coach and promptly gave birth to twins.

Custody arrangements placed Mclean with her father, a consultant for a restaurant conglomerate who hops around the South, settling into towns for no more than a few months at a time as he works to turn around troubled eateries. But the wounds of divorce run deep. Three years of switching home bases so frequently have only added to Mclean's hesitation to trust.

In this tale of self-identity and, ultimately, acceptance, removing the girl from the place where she was hurt doesn't get rid of the hurt itself, but that doesn't stop Mclean from trying.

Feeling "unformed, like a cake half-baked with edges crisp, but still mushy in the middle," Mclean takes advantage of her on-the-go lifestyle. Instead of being herself, and making herself vulnerable, she's tried on a different identity with each new town she and her dad have moved to. Tall and blond, with "corn-fed" good looks she inherited from her Southern belle of a mother, she's had no difficulty falling in with the jocks and "rah-rahs," or drama mamas or student council. She's even tried on different names.

But when Mclean moves to the town of Lakeview, something is different. For a change, Mclean decides to be Mclean.

She does this with the help of a boy, of course, and another outsider girl — both of whom avoid the usual clichés for such characters. Unlike other writers of realistic teen fiction, Dessen opts out of the usual traps presented by mean girls and by popular guys who are only after sex. Dessen takes a refreshing, hormone-free higher road that stays focused on Mclean's emotional growth, while incorporating details that remain true to modern adolescence.

One of Mclean's first encounters with her love interest, Dave, involves an underage party with beer, but he drinks only one. Their physical involvement never goes beyond hand holding.

It's increasingly rare for a young-adult writer to be so classy in handling such issues, but that is one of Dessen's many strengths. Her expository writing is poised, her dialogue authentic, her characters relatable, her story relevant. It just isn't salacious.

"What Happened to Goodbye" is, in many ways, the tracing of a girl's acceptance of her parents' divorce and, more important, of herself. Divorce, Mclean writes in a book told from her point of view, was like a piece of paper ripped in 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."

As Mclean learns "how to be with someone and remain there, even when the conversation…[gets] uncomfortable," she begins to find those tiny pieces and make herself whole again.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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