Saturday, September 5, 2015

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Rebecca Stead is brilliant with her characterizations and intricate plots that have you wondering where the heck she is going with her stories, and this one won't disappoint, but for me, it missed the mark. If I had not read her previous books I would have not slogged through the first fifty pages, but abandoned it. If you are a patient reader who is sustained by great writing and like details that show how complicated relationships are, then you probably won't have the problem I did. I'm just not patient with slow moving setups. That said, I really want to use this for book club to see what other students think of it. The depth of the messages range from self-identity, to changing relationships, to changing bodies, to social media messes, to feminism, to bullies, to choices... you get the idea. Themes pile on themes like a skyscraper.

Bridge, Emily, and Tab are seventh graders that have been friends since elementary school. They swore on a Twinkie that they would not have any fights but it has been difficult this year. The three are changing. Bridge survived a car accident in 3rd grade that should have killed her. She wonders why she didn't die. Emily is a soccer star that has matured physically and is getting attention from boys in school. Tab is inspired by a feminist teacher in school and breathes her ideals sometimes like an annoying puppet, sometimes foolishly, and other times with some wisdom. As the three change they manage to hold onto their friendship with respect and support each other in some trying situations.

An alternating viewpoint has a mystery narrator that has ditched school for the day and has done something terrible to another friend. Written in a second person narration, this story thread didn't hold my interest as much as the main story with the three friends. I admire Stead's daring use of the second person and actually I would have probably been even less interested in this mystery person had she used the third person narration found in the rest of the story. I just found the mystery character boring. She's skipping school so the tension is there. She's done something awful and I should be eager to find out what is was, but I never got vested in her crisis. The incident took too long to unfold for my bouncy brain. I was more interested in the three twinkle-toes and their drama.

And once the drama got rolling, boy, did the beat get loud. Em has an 8th grade boy that is interested in her and they begin by sharing photos of each others body parts. A foot. A shin. A thigh. But this head-and-shoulders-knees-and-toes song loses its innocence along the way and the two get in heaps of trouble when an inappropriate photo leaks to other classmates phones. This is one media blitz that Em did not foresee nor want and her friends are there sometimes helping and sometimes making the situation worse.

I'd be pretty dippy if I didn't mention some of Stead's great lines. Like I said she's a great writer... I just struggled at slipping into this storyline. I did eventually, but it was like a dragged-out warmup before soccer practice. "Life was a too-tall stack of books that had started to lean to one side, and each new day was another book on top." Or when Em is complaining about her four-dimensional zit. Tab asks if the 4th dimension means it smells to which Em replies, "Ew, no. The fourth dimension is time. This thing has been here for two weeks!" Done laughing? Here's a serious one about time, "Life isn't something that happens to you. It's something you make yourself, all the time."

Book reviews come down to opinions. I will read this novel again for book club. Who knows? Maybe the second time I will love it. I remember an English teacher telling me she hated Wuthering Heights until her third year teaching it. She said with each go-round she picked up on more and more themes, craft, and characterizations. I think that could be the same for me. It has been bonkers this fall, so all my interruptions and reading two chapters here-and-there might have kept me from getting into this plot as quickly as I normally do when cranking through books. Either way, it is worth reading and making your own conclusions.

Two fantastic reviews can be found on Betsy Bird's SLJ blog and Mike's blog.

5 Smileys

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