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Thursday, August 6, 2015

'Goodbye Stranger' by Rebecca Stead

 Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

Bridge is an accident survivor who’s wondering why she’s still alive. Emily has new curves and an almost-boyfriend who wants a certain kind of picture. Tabitha sees through everybody’s games—or so she tells the world. The three girls are best friends with one rule: No fighting. Can it get them through seventh grade?

This year everything is different for Sherm Russo as he gets to know Bridge Barsamian. What does it mean to fall for a girl—as a friend?

On Valentine’s Day, an unnamed high school girl struggles with a betrayal. How long can she hide in plain sight?

‘Goodbye Stranger’ is the new middle-grade/young adult novel from Newbery Medal winner Rebecca Stead.

Rebecca Stead is one of my favourite writers, quite possibly of all-time. I was in awe of her novel When You Reach Me, adored Liar & Spy and was eagerly anticipating her latest Goodbye Stranger. When I was approved for an advance copy on NetGalley, I gave a fist-pump. And now that I’ve finished reading … well, as always happens with one of Stead’s books, I want to go right back to the start and begin again – but I think Goodbye Stranger may well be my favourite book of hers.

The story is told by an omniscient narrator, and alternately follows several seventh-grade students who live in a fictional borough of New York, as they navigate a new phase of their adolescence. While we do follow multiple characters, the book really hangs on Bridge – a young girl who was hit by a car when she was eight-years-old and miraculously survived, only to be told by a nurse that there must have been a reason for her to still be here. Bridge has been thinking on what that reason could be ever since.

Bridge’s best friends are Tab and Em, and between the three of them they have one steadfast rule – no fighting!

Em has blossomed over the summer, to become truly beautiful and both Bridge and Tab are noticing that she’s started moving in very different circles to them – pulled in by the popular sports crowd, she even has a text-friendship thing going on with the most popular boy in eight grade, Patrick.

Tab comes from a loving household with a wise older sister. This year she is very influenced by a teacher they call ‘The Berperson’ – who’s big on feminism and bringing down the patriarchy, and Tab is trying to open everyone’s eyes to the misogyny all around them.

Bridge is also becoming fast friends with a boy on stage tech crew – Sherm, who has his own problems. His grandfather has recently moved out, making Sherm’s father an adult ‘child of divorce’ and leaving Sherm confused about what love is, exactly.

Then there’s a mysterious second-person narrative whose chapters are condensed into a single Valentine’s Day. “You” are wandering around the city streets after deciding that you need a mental-health day away from school and some unfolding friendship dramas.

Rebecca Stead’s story is multi-layered and sumptuous, beautifully plotted and a real page-turner, even as she’s to be commended for exploring the intense mundanity of adolescence, alongside new pitfalls for today’s teenagers. At one point, the mysterious “You” narrated chapters muses that if you were to tell your mother all that’s been happening in your friendship group and at school, she’d tell you it will all be okay … when what you really want to hear is that she understands this to be the most awful, real thing that’s ever happened to you. Because of course it is when you’re 13, 14, 15 … you feel it all so intensely.

Goodbye Stranger touches on so many topics affecting teenagers, both big and small – and what’s really amazing is Stead’s ability to give the seemingly little things the attention they deserve, while nullifying the supposed “catastrophes” and putting them into perspective. There’s a sexting scandal storyline, for instance – but Stead doesn’t blow it up the way the nightly news does, sending parents into a panic about images leaking online, resulting in the destruction of young people’s lives! She humanises the storyline, brings a level of respect and common sense to the dilemma that so many young adult authors have hinged entire plotlines on.

I wish I could see what would have happened if I hadn’t told. You told me once that every time a decision is made, the universe splits into two. So now there’s a universe in which I kept my mouth shut. But I can’t see what it looks like.

Likewise, a story about a young person taking mental-health day to escape the drama of their friendship group is written in suspense and pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle mystery.

I also loved that feminism comes up again and again – initially for the character of Tab, who is very preoccupied with her teacher’s musings on misogyny – but eventually the lessons start sinking in for everyone.
 Sometimes your body feels like a cage for all the stuff inside. You paint your nails, braid your hair, and buy the right kind of jeans, but none of it is really about you.

If there’s any overarching theme to Goodbye Stranger it may just be love – in all its manifestations, as these young people try figuring it out. The character of Sherm is so interesting for the way his family has recently fractured, and he starts writing unsent letters to his grandfather to figure out his feelings on the matter.
 Sherm got along with everyone – he was like that. But once his grandfather left, Sherm realized that with the guys at school, talking was like a game where everyone piles on jokes and the winner was the person whose joke ended up on top. With girls, it was a different game, a lot of teasing and trading fake insults. But it wasn’t that way with Bridge. 
Bridge is also having a hard time figuring out “love” – especially when she starts hanging out with Sherm, and truly enjoying his company. But does that mean she automatically loves him, and wants to be his girlfriend? What even is love anyway?
 “Yeah, my mom says that love is like music. One day you just – hear it.” 
“Whoa. First of all, I never said I loved Patrick. But I think I know what she means. I don’t think she means actual music, Bridge. She means that you know it when you feel it. Like music – you know it when you hear it.” 
“Okay, so love is also like a hamburger? You know it when you taste it?” 
Em laughed. “A hamburger is more deliberate. You have to make it, or ask for it. … Music just kind of breaks over you.”

I found so much enjoyment in this book – in Stead’s writing and certain perfect sentences, and scenes that just took my breath away. One of my favourites involved Tab and Bridge witnessing Tab’s Hindu parents at the tail end of Karva Chauth, when they go “moon hunting” to break her mother’s fast. I loved this multi-layered narrative and these characters that seem to be exploring so many different themes and emotions, but by the last page they all come together with beautiful harmony. I can’t even tell you if Goodbye Stranger is strictly middle-grade, because it will definitely appeal to young adult readers, but at the same time I’m 27-years-old and Rebecca Stead’s writing hits me in a way that so few writers can these days.

This is a new favourite, and Rebecca Stead proves once again that she’s one of the best writers out there today. Young readers are lucky to have her … heck, older readers are too.


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