Backlist Review: What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen

Monday, July 20, 2015
Author: Sarah Dessen
Genre: young-adult
Series: N/A
Pages: 402 (hardcover)
Published: May 2011
Source: bought
Rating: 3/5

Who is the real McLean?

Since her parents' bitter divorce, McLean and her dad, a restaurant consultant, have been on the move-four towns in two years. Estranged from her mother and her mother's new family, McLean has followed her dad in leaving the unhappy past behind. And each new place gives her a chance to try out a new persona: from cheerleader to drama diva. But now, for the first time, McLean discovers a desire to stay in one place and just be herself, whoever that is. Perhaps Dave, the guy next door, can help her find out.

Combining Sarah Dessen's trademark graceful writing, great characters, and compelling storytelling, What Happened to Goodbye is irresistible reading.

Sarah Dessen writes young-adult novels very well, with feeling and veracity and What Happened to Goodbye is on par with all her previous efforts (that I have read). Mclean is our main character, an independent and self-sufficient teenager that lives solely with her father after her mother cheated on their marriage. Since her mother and father's acrimonious divorce, Mclean has moved towns multiple times with her restaurant-fixing father, often adopting (and subsequently shedding) different versions of herself to play for each town. Dessen utterly nails the inner emotions and silent turmoil this troubled girl is experiencing: Mclean is a study in withdrawal and hidden pain. 

Familiar character types appear: the stalwart best friend, the intriguing love interest, the resented parent figure (this time the mother) but each with unique twists and traits to distinguish from both each other and past Dessen characters. Deb, the squirrely and unpopular yet utterly awesome best friend Mclean meets at her new school was constantly surprising me with different, random aspects of her personality. Portrayed as a bookish, uber-nerd, the revelation that Deb is a "metal screamo drummer" and tattoo enthusiast only increased my affection for this varied cast. Dessen's plots may tend a bit towards formulaic and recycled, but it is her fresh, fun characters that draw me back time and time again. Incorporating past figures (oh hey Jason from The Truth About Forever - glad to see you've matured up a bit! and Gervais from Lock and Key!) and new soon-to-be-loved ones like Deb and Opal.

Mclean herself was sadly not my favorite. Though realistic, I found her worldview and voice throughout the novel to be too dry and direct for me. With sparse descriptions and little to no visual exposition, this novel and Mclean herself were just not as fully realized for me. I liked her well enough, but the emotional distance she places between herself and others made it hard for me as a reader to feel sympathy for her in crucial moments. Mclean and her mother's avoidance of a conflict and voicing their problems drove me nuts. I can't stand vacillating for 300 pages and then nada; I want a compelling, even visceral scene if the drama has been hyped that much.

As I've mentioned I felt vaguely disappointed with parts of this novel and the climax was one of those. There was never a true feel of urgency in any part of the story, certainly not found at the end either. My interest was not kept in several of the subplots because there was no driving force or antagonist to keep the pace and story moving as it might have. Additionally, Dave, the love interest never really seemed to shoot sparks or fireworks with Mclean. They certainly had chemistry, but it was more platonic in my opinion.  I did like that the love-triangle and most of the romantic angst was hung on Mclean's dad Gus instead of her - I sometimes authors forget that a love triangle doesn't have to a young girl with two hot teen dudes; Gus and his women twist a familiar YA trope into a fresh and awkwardly humorous setting.

What Happened to Goodbye was not my favorite thus far of Dessen's books. Of the three I've read, I would rate it last of all but it is by no means a bad book. I think fans of Dessen's will inhale it and breathe out love, but I don't think it will be a novel that brings many new fans to the author. 


  1. I like the idea of moving from town to town and reinventing yourself a bit. :)

  2. I did too! I might even want to do it if I moved around as much as this character.


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