MMGM and #IMWAYR: Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead (a re-re-review)
I hope everyone is doing well this week! I took an hour on Friday morning to listen all the way through Billie Eilish's new album of music, Happier Than Ever, and it was SO GOOD!!! If you'd like song recommendations, I recommend "Getting Older," "Billie Bossa Nova," "my future," "GOLDWING," "Not My Responsibility"/"OverHeated" (which are kind of a pair), "Your Power," and "NDA"/"Therefore I Am" (which I also think work better as a pair).
Also, I keep forgetting to plug my Thursday Thoughts posts, so I'll do that now—a while back, I discussed two fun non-kidlit books I had recently read, and this past Thursday, I posted another original poem called "An evening walk"!
Moving on, I've got an interesting and RIDICULOUSLY LENGTHY blog post for you today about my favorite book of all time: Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead.
I could probably have shortened this post, but in a way, I wrote it for my own personal gratification, so I decided it could be as long as I needed it to be so I could say what I wanted to say.
|The new cover of the book.|
(A note about the cover shown at left: I feel obligated to show the new cover of the book first, but among my many strong opinions about this book is that the original cover at left is better [or is at least how I envision Sherm and Bridge]. Interestingly, there was a different cover BEFORE this cover that wasn't used in print; learn about it here and here. The art on the original cover is by Marcos Chin.)
Oh my, I don't even know where to start, but I have to start somewhere. Goodbye Stranger is my favorite book of all time. It's written by Rebecca Stead, who is also the author of First Light, Newbery medalist When You Reach Me, Liar & Spy, Bob [co-written by Wendy Mass], and The List of Things That Will Not Change. As I discussed in this Thursday Thoughts blog post, I did not like Goodbye Stranger when I first read it in 2015 (when it came out). But my opinions on Goodbye Stranger began to change as I re-read it. And re-read it. And re-read it. I should have kept count, but I believe I've now read Goodbye Stranger 8 times (including the time right before this review). And over the years, I've reviewed it twice: once in 2017, and then again in 2018 because my first review didn't do the book justice. But my second review didn't either, and this review won't either—this book is simply too complex to be summed up. But after deciding to re-read this book yet again, taking notes, and writing down page number after page number, I am going to attempt to (a) write a good
review re-review re-re-review of Goodbye Stranger and (b) simply dissect all the things I love about the book (without spoilers, of course) for my own personal satisfaction. I'm hoping this review can act as "Completely Full Bookshelf's definitive analysis of Goodbye Stranger!"
This book is so hard to describe that I won't even bother—let's just start off with the back flap description of Goodbye Stranger (specifically, the description from the original hardcover—I'm just going to retype it rather than copy-and-paste one of the new descriptions from the Internet). I'll fill in this description's gaps later, but please take the time to actually read it—it's quite accurate and not long!
"You must have been put on this earth for a reason, little girl."
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.
They're best friends with one rule: No fighting. Can it get them through seventh grade?
"Somewhere there's a universe in which you never left."
Everything is different for Sherm Russo this year. When he gets to know Bridge Barsamian, he wonders: what does it mean to fall for a girl—as a friend?
White carnations for friendship. Pink for like. Red for love.
On Valentine's Day, an unnamed high school girl struggles with a betrayal. How long can she hide in plain sight?
From the author of When You Reach Me and Liar & Spy comes this captivating story about the bonds—and limits—of friendship.
OK, I'd like to fill in a few gaps from that description. There are three main perspectives in this book. One is the third-person chapters from the perspective of Bridge (the primary protagonist of the book). Characters like Em and Tab (that's what Emily and Tabitha often go by) are introduced solely through these third-person chapters, not their own points of view. But Sherm actually does get his own perspective besides his appearances in these chapters—we see first-person letters from him to his grandfather, and he also gets a couple (two, I believe) third-person chapters from only his perspective. And then we have the third perspective of the unnamed high school girl, who appears in chapters set entirely on Valentine's Day and written in second-person (as in, "you" pronouns instead of the "I/me" of first-person or "he/she/they" of third-person). So that's a lot, and it's all crammed into just 287 pages. It's almost ridiculously ambitious (as my favorite books tend to be), but somehow, it works.
(And I almost forgot to mention: Rebecca Stead lives in New York City, where this book, like most if not all of her books, is set. And I think her books are about 95% of the reason why I want to visit NYC so badly at some point.)
I want to talk about SO MANY THINGS, but I also want to leave a lot for you to discover when (not if, when) you read the book, so I'll be very careful here to avoid spoilers. (Good thing I still can barely articulate my thoughts on this book!) I think we have to start by talking about Bridge, the overall protagonist of this book. Bridge is hard to confine to a few adjectives—all of the characters in this book have their core attributes and the ways that they deviate from those attributes over time, but Bridge in particular has this deceptively simple vague-protagonist appearance that kind of allows her to be every trait all at once—which matches real life, where the person you know the most about (yourself) seems to not have a distinct personality because they are your baseline for judging others. Still, Bridge does have noticeable traits in comparison to other people, and I'll try to describe what I've noticed about her over time. Bridge is a pretty confident kid. She doesn't get embroiled with the popular kids or bullies, and they don't get embroiled with her. So she feels pretty free, despite being in middle school, to act the way she wants to—both covers show her wearing a headband of cat ears, which she wears throughout the entire book. On the note of these cat ears, there's a quote on page 9 that reads:
So there had been no one at home that morning to make her think twice about the cat ears. Not that anyone in her family was the type to try and stop her from wearing them in the first place. And not that she was the type to be stopped.
(Oh, yes, this is a quote-filled review—you think I can just describe Rebecca Stead's writing in just a few adjectives? Ha ha.) Anyway, the point is that Bridge isn't the kind of kid who cares what people think of her—and that's important, because although she acts in ways that sometimes deviate from the norm, she isn't doing it for some kind of manic-pixie-dream-girl "I must be different from everyone else or I'm not valuable" kind of reason. Bridge is a well-adjusted kid too—she's compassionate, she's not super-shy or anxious, and she gets by in school, except maybe for French class (Bridge definitely makes you think about how we judge kids for their grades and not for their kindness and perseverance throughout the nightmare that is middle school). Now, there is one other thing about Bridge—she was hit by a car as a child and missed 3rd grade. That sounds like such classic MG dead-parent garbage, but it strays from the tired, clichéd pathways in a few key ways. First of all, Bridge is completely healed, and she's not totally traumatized either (she's a little traumatized, but hello? She was hit by a car.). So it's honestly not a massive deal in the book—you could argue that the whole thing could be taken out of the book, but you would definitely lose support for a main theme of the book (not to mention my recent realization that Tab's support of Bridge during this situation instead of simply running from the pain and from Bridge is likely a big part of why their relationship is so strong). It's that major theme in the book that is what I wanted to mention, though—there's a quote in the synopsis from one of Bridge's nurses that she still thinks about. Did she survive the accident for a reason? Occasionally throughout the book, Bridge contemplates this meaning-of-life-style question, and unsurprisingly with Rebecca Stead, there are some profound answers to be had.
I think that'll do as an examination of Bridge. So let's look at Em, Tab, and some of the stuff that goes on between the three of them (which I'll discuss vaguely to avoid spoilers). Bridge and Tab have been friends for a long time and went through the accident together—Em is a friend of Tab's that Bridge met once she returned to school post-accident in 4th grade. Em and Tab aren't quite like Bridge in terms of characterization—they have more immediately recognizable (if still complex) personalities that they deviate from, because they have those immediately noticeable differences from our baseline, Bridge. Em is different from Bridge in that she is all caught up in the popular kids' situation—she's not a mean girl by any means, but she can rack up the social media followers or be admired on the soccer team better than a lot of kids. Also, Em is a little more emotional than Bridge—perhaps just because of circumstance, Bridge is never ecstatic or heartbroken, but Em definitely goes through highs and lows at times—and Stead makes it clear that she has a somewhat fragile core. Meanwhile, Tab keeps to her own small group like Bridge does, and she's a little louder and more noticeable than Bridge or even Em—most of the time, she doesn't have that quiet, content mindset that Bridge has, and she hasn't built up that fragile, inner fear of shame that Em developed by maturing and hides so well. Tab can be a little childish, or profoundly wise, depending on the moment. Bridge, Em, and Tab are such good friends that they're almost sisters—they know each other's siblings, they're always at each other's houses, and they can just assume that the texts they get from each other aren't intended with any kind of hidden malice or sarcasm that's hard to pick up on in texts. (And the dialogue between the three girls is on point in every scene—and there's a lot of scenes where they're together.) But despite these girls' bond, seventh grade brings challenges—and when I say challenges, I mean start-preparing-your-assemblies-and-advocacy-curriculum-because-kids-these-days-are-getting-into-trouble kind of challenges. They're alarming and oh-so-real—whether kids see this as a cautionary tale (which Stead is careful not to make overt) or a relatable horror show, they need to see this stuff. Throughout the story, Tab starts to care about feminism and things like the objectification of women thanks to an unusual English teacher. Throughout the book, characters start to get frustrated with Tab's increasing outrage over every little thing, and although Tab is startlingly perceptive about some genuine double standards for men and women in society, there are also moments that make clear that she has dramatically misunderstood some of the fundamentals of feminism—and since she is the only character particularly invested in it in the first place, it almost seems like the book is rejecting feminism itself. But that's a dramatically superficial and incorrect view of the book, and if you pay attention to the aforementioned challenges that the three girls face, you can see some of the truly profound messages Stead has packed into the book about feminism and, particularly, our refusal to let girls like their own bodies and make choices about them (which can even include showing them off). I can't say more than that for fear of spoilers, but rest assured that it's all extremely profound.
And then we have Sherm, who deserves his own paragraph. I adore—adore—each and every character in this book, but except for maybe Bridge, Sherm is quite possibly my favorite of all. So what's Sherm like? Again in reference to that baseline of Bridge, Sherm has a similar quiet-ish attitude—like Bridge and even Em sometimes (though not so much Tab), he doesn't feel the need to fill the silence with talking. Sherm isn't quite as content as Bridge—he seems to be, but in the letters to his beloved grandfather that we see, we learn that he is grappling with his own struggles after his grandfather divorces his grandmother. Sherm definitely has a sense of humor and is even a bit snarky at times. And he's also what many people might consider a nerd—he enjoys math homework, for goodness's sake! (Although, considering the fact that I self-identify as a nerd—in case you've forgotten, you're reading me geek out for some thousands of words about a book—I think that's part of the reason why I love Sherm so much.) Sherm and Bridge have an immensely compelling friendship that develops gradually and realistically over time, including in the chapter shown on the original cover where both of them visit a diner (that chapter alone could teach people so much about writing natural dialogue and introducing different knowledge about different characters). And I do love Stead's choice to give us an inner look at Sherm through his letters (which are wonderful) and the two chapters from his perspective (the latter of which might be one of my favorite chapters in the whole book—I'd include a quote, but I'll leave it for you to discover). In short: Sherm is great.
Now, the last major aspect of the book I want to discuss is the Valentine's Day chapters, told in second-person by an unnamed high school girl. If I'm being totally frank, the only big thing I still don't completely understand about Goodbye Stranger is the decision to include this alternate perspective. It makes sense to have Sherm's perspective, since Sherm is already a major character in the Bridge/Em/Tab chapters. But the Valentine's Day chapters, despite being in the same universe, are largely disconnected from the main story—it's sort of like switching back and forth between two books. So why is this section included? Well, first of all, despite some of the alarming issues the kids deal with in the Bridge/Em/Tab chapters, those chapters are still relatively comfortable and non-stressful to read. So the Valentine's Day chapters act almost as foreshadowing of the even tougher issues Bridge, Em, and Tab will deal with as they grow older and enter the complicated mess that is high school. (Note that there's nothing particularly YA about these chapters to where you need to be concerned for young readers.) And also, the Valentine's Day chapters are an important facet into this book's exploration of relationships. Goodbye Stranger tackles strong friendships, growing friendships, romantic relationships that include friendship/romantic relationships that don't, and even romantic relationships that end in divorce (beside Sherm's grandparents, Em's parents are also divorced—I believe Stead's own parents divorced when she was a kid, so divorce returns as a topic in her book The List of Things That Will Not Change). The one somewhat-glaring omission is friendships that are disintegrating, and that is where the Valentine's Day chapters come in. I think part of why I didn't like Goodbye Stranger when I first read it is that I found these chapters horribly depressing. But as I've grown older, I see them more as just thoughtful explorations of a painful experience. Intermixed with the adrenaline and Murphy's-law situations of running away from home for a day are immensely poignant and wise ideas about the struggle of making new and successful friendships when you feel bound to a childhood friend (in this case, Vinny) who you care about but who has turned into a deeply cruel girl. I'll leave most of these chapters for you to discover, but I have two quotes for you to contemplate. One is from page 149 and effortlessly shows part of why the unnamed girl cannot let Vinny go:
But Vinny also made you feel as if you were exactly where you wanted to be, if not exactly who.
And the other quote is from a page number I forgot to write down (aargh) and effortlessly shows part of why the unnamed girl has run away:
If your mom were here, she would tell you that none of this is so terrible. She'd say that she remembers being young. That high school is complicated. That friends are complicated. That none of it is as important as it feels. That's why you aren't calling her. Because if she truly remembered, she'd know that everything is exactly as terrible as it feels. She'd sit down right next to you and say, "It's bad."
So how does all this stuff in Goodbye Stranger come together? Well, it comes together in many surprising, unique ways, thanks to Rebecca Stead's inimitable writing ability. It's rare to see a chapter in this book that leads directly into the next chapter. Each chapter in this book is a little different, and each one is a self-contained world, a vignette all its own. So rather than just repeating the same ideas over and over again, Stead concisely moves through tons and tons and tons of different characters, ideas, and moments. Do you want to see Bridge, Em, and Tab hanging out together and displaying the strength of their relationship? There's plenty of that. Do you want a scene where Bridge contemplates her life with the help of Em's fortune-telling younger brother? That scene exists. Do you want scenes with a headstrong new employee at the coffee shop that Bridge's father owns? That employee actually gets a surprising amount of backstory. There's so many little, fun details that Stead incorporates into the story and makes meaning out of—a plastic elf figurine symbolizes an entire sibling relationship, and the Apollo 11 moon landing turns into a subplot about misinformation and is then used to explore the deepest emotions of a certain character. Stead also writes with a sense of humor (which I hadn't thought about until I looked at a blurb for one of her other books, and I realized it's true here). There's a quote on page 140 that reads:
... Tab's mom said that when people reached out to hurt your feelings, it was because they secretly felt they deserved to be talked to that way. She said that they had "long, hard roads ahead" and that you should just wish them well. Bridge didn't examine the idea too closely because she liked it and hoped, really hoped, that it was true about the long, hard roads.
Although she wasn't so sure about the wishing-them-well part.
I do love that line! Also, although I've always felt that Stead has a knack for genuinely depicting the lives and thoughts of kids, I've gained a slightly deeper understanding of how she does that. First, Stead doesn't just understand kids, she respects them. She writes about the ways that her characters think and act in a way that portrays them as wonderful and valuable, not as something to be fixed. The kids in this story do amazing things, and it's not because some adult taught them to—it's because they are kids, and they think differently than adults do. Relatedly, Stead brings a lot of themes into this story, but she doesn't seem to write with the goal of teaching kids things. Many themes in Goodbye Stranger apply to the characters within the story but aren't immediately generalizable to the broader world. As I mentioned earlier, Tab dramatically misunderstands feminism in parts of the story, but in no way is Stead trying to say something like "Kids today misunderstand feminism." She writes about her characters and their world alone, and if a teacher, adult, or young reader themselves wants to learn from that, that's awesome. And if they don't, that's awesome too. Stead is thrifty with her on-the-nose emotional revelations, but she tucks truths of the world, of the beauty of everyday life, of the wonderful minds of kids, of small plastic figurines and massive real-world issues, into each chapter, page, and sentence. I'd like to finish off with a short passage from page 102 of the book that is absolutely beautiful and (I think) convincing with regards to why you should read this book. Here it is:
They pulled into an empty spot next to a fire hydrant. They were on a narrow street of low brownstones, with the moon sitting just above them. Bridge felt quiet pour into the car through the open windows, along with the smell of a fire from someone's backyard.
Tab looked at Bridge and scrunched up her nose. "I smell burnt marshmallows," she whispered.
Bridge inhaled, then smiled. "I love that smell." She heard laughter through the window of the nearest brownstone, and what sounded like a metal spoon scraping a pot, getting the last little bit from the bottom.
That quote may not sum up the whole book, but it comes pretty close. In two sentences, Tab and Bridge's personalities seem to come through loud and clear—Tab's slight indignation and Bridge's quiet, content way. Stead's ability to bring a scene to life with only the most important details is there, and her creativity in the smallest sentences is apparent from that last clause about the metal spoon—Stead brings in these feelings of comfort and love with a line that, the way it is written, could just be some random metal noise in the streets of New York City. It's details like these that keep me coming back to Goodbye Stranger. If you stop frantically turning the pages and take some time to pore over the details (or even spend your summer vacation writing an analytical essay like I just did, because that's how much I love this book), you'll see that Goodbye Stranger contains practically everything you could want in a book in just 287 pages. Complex characters, hidden details, real-world themes, everyday life, friends, family, love in all of its forms—I insist that this book is like no other in the realm of MG literature. And if you'll take my word that I have page number after page number written down in my notes, pages of parallels and metaphors and writing choices that make me stare in awe, you'll see that, as hard as I've tried, it is truly impossible to sum up this book in anything less than the book itself. So please, join me in the set of all people who re-read this book again and again, trying to understand what makes it so good, utterly failing again and again, and being perfectly content about it.
(P.S. That "set of all people" thing I just said is a Goodbye Stranger reference. Because of course it is.)
(P.P.S. It is possible that I'm going to start a Goodbye Stranger-related crafts project for myself. Stay tuned for details [unless I get bored and give up]!)
(P.P.P.S. Everything above comes in at 3,309 words [excluding the quotes and synopsis], so yeah, I really gave myself some liberties when writing this review. If you made it this far, thank you for sitting through this crazy-long discussion!)
My rating is: Stunning! (are you surprised?)