I have a whole bunch of books sitting on my shelf that I need to read (The Copper Gauntlet, The Nest, Another Day), but this book got bumped to the top of my list because it’s going to be published soon. I was really tempted to skip it because it follows an age group younger than I’m used to: 7th grade. I have a hard time even picturing 7th graders to be honest. How was I going to be able to deal with 7th grade drama without rolling my eyes?
I am glad I stuck it out.
Goodbye Strange has several main characters who know each other but their problems don’t intersect for the most part. Bridge has started up a friendship with Sherm and it’s clear that they are headed for romance – eventually. Sherm’s grandfather has divorced his grandmother, leaving him feeling abandoned. Emily is flirting with a boy and has sent out a couple of poorly thought out selfies that could get her into trouble. Tabitha is socially aware in a stereotypical ra-ra-social-activist way and has to learn how to pick her battles. Then there is Unnamed Girl (UG) who is taking an unofficial mental health day because she has run afoul of a mean-girl and needs time to think.
It’s Stead’s treatment of her characters that makes the book a pleasant read. No one’s problems were played up for high drama or overly exaggerated to make a point. She didn’t feel the need to preach that taking scantily clad selfies and sending them to boys you don’t really know is a bad thing – anyone with a lick of common sense can figure that out. Instead, Stead lets the consequences of their actions play out naturally without turning their issues into an ABC melodrama.
The writing style is one of slight detachment and also helps keep the high drama down. It’ll be familiar to anyone who has read something like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. It hits a sweet spot where both off-hand and profound thoughts from the characters slip through and occasionally the omniscient narrator inserts in some foreshadowing.
The romance between Sherm and Bridge is what stands out the most. Teen fiction is a genre of firsts: first love, first kiss, first fight. Goodbye Stranger features a first I haven’t seen before: first
courtship romantic friendship. You know, that one where everybody says you two are clearly more than friends, but both of you are taking your time and taking it delicately slow. It’s sweet and careful and fragile. Better yet, it highlights how we form relationships, giving them significance rather than just throwing raging emotions around like its Mardi Gra. Think the first two seasons of the Mindy Project or the first two seasons of the New Girl. Who can forget how hot that first kiss between Nick and Jess was after all that back and forth? Of course Goodbye Stranger is much more innocent, but the focus on what makes the two of them click together pays off big time at the end.
There was one choice made by Stead that I found odd, which was how she chose to tell UG’s plot. Every character’s story is told in 3rd person except for UG who gets treated in 2nd person. On top of that while the other character’s story takes place over months, UG’s story takes place over a day. It was somewhat jarring to have the book split like this and UG’s story could have just as easily been told like everyone else’s. In fact, it would have allowed the author to show more about her rather than having it all told to us in more pointed flash backs.
Goodbye Stranger is an sweet story that would be a great read for anyone in grades 5 to 10, but it doesn’t limit itself to those age groups which I think is amazing. It has a lot to offer young readers without being patronizing. And while the story is a great standalone, I would love to see a sequel about these kids in high school or, even better, a new adult book about these characters going into college. I think Stead could really do something with those stages of life too.