Monday, August 3, 2015
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
But seventh grade brings changes. Bridge begins wearing a headband with furry cat ears every day to school; Tab is exploring hidden messages in language under the guidance of her English teacher, Ms. Berman a feminist who insists on being called Ms. Berperson; and Em has physically developed more over the summer than her friends, and has started an intense relationship with an eighth grader named Patrick done entirely in selfies of different body parts.
Seventh grade also means mandatory clubs, but Bridge dislikes clubs. Instead she joins the Tech Crew, where she runs into Sherman Russo from her English class; Tab joins the Hindi, French and Human Rights clubs; for athletic Em it is the soccer club.
As seventh grade gets underway, Bridge and Sherm begin to become good friends, and even though every one else thinks that they are more than friends, Bridge isn't quite ready for that; Tab starts radicalizing her thinking along the lines of the Berperson and applying what she learns outside of class, sometmes not very well; and Em makes a tragic mistake sending a selfie of herself in her bra to Patrick that soon is circulating about school.
In alternating chapters, the reader learns more about Sherm as he writes letters to his estranged grandfather, Nonno Gio, who has left his wife after 50 years of marriage because he has become a stranger to himself. The letters are never mailed, and although Nonno Gio makes repeated attempts to get in touch or to see Sherm, they have all met with failure. Sherm and his grandfather had been very close to each other, but now, he is feeling angry, bewildered and betrayed by this changed Nonno Gio.
And in still other alternating chapters, the reader goes through one particular Valentine's Day in the near future with a mysterious high school girl, who is cutting school. Who this character is and why she is avoiding school becomes clearer with each Valentine's Day entry as she grapples with coming to terms with the changes in a former friend and her own betrayal of another friend. Interestingly, her story is told from a second person point of view.
So, without having to resort to any more spoilers about the three narrative threads running through Goodbye Stranger, and that would most certainly ruin this excellent book for everyone, what is this book about? Yes, it is a coming of age story, and it is about change, relationships , and betrayals. But let's circle back to the Berperson because Goodbye Stranger is also about exploring the hidden messages in language - whether these messages are in the form of flirtations, text messages, voice mail, selfies, cat ears, unsent letters, even the message sent when a former best friend erases you from their life - and what these messages say about who these characters really are as their lives begin to transition. For Bridge, Tab, Em and even Sherm, seventh grade is a year of leaving their child selves behind and discovering their new teenage selves, it's a time when "life didn't balance anymore" (pg 17), and begs the same question that Sherm asks his grandfather: "Is the new you the stranger or is the stranger the person you leave behind?" (pg 213).
And leave it to Rebecca Stead to explore all narrative points of view in one book, not an easy feat to make work. But she does make it work, and brilliantly. Second person point of view not easy to pull off, to begin with, and especially not when the majority of the book is written in third person, except for Sherm's first person letters to his grandfather. If this is a novel about exploring the hidden messages in language, the change of narrative person drives home the idea that we change all through life and with each change we become a new stranger to ourselves, and consequently, we leave behind another stranger.
What more can I say without spoiling Goodbye Stranger for readers? In my humble opinion, this is Rebecca Stead's best work to date. I know she won the Newbery in 2010 for her novel When You Reach Me and she certainly deserved that. But Goodbye Stranger shows that her writing just gets better with each new book. Her themes are timely and relevant, her characters full-bodied even as they change and her writing is emotional, humorous and lyrical. What more could you want?
This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley