Sunday, May 22, 2011

Book Review: What Happened to Goodbye

Sarah Dessen is a brilliant novelist. She is, undoutably, one of the best young adult novelist out there, but beyond that, she is a masterful story teller. Unlike many authors in her genre, she develops more than just a basic plot and character. Her books are so full, coming to life with theme and symbolism and a thoroughly developed world where all these things interact. Sarah Dessen is a genius, a master of her genre, and she will always be one of my favourite authors.

That's the spiel I give every time the topic of Sarah comes up. I am forever singing her praises, and forever recommending her books to my friends. I have loved her for so long that I now purchase her books without hesitation. I read about them months beforehand, hearing about them on her blog, and hunting down early reviews everyday until the release date. But even if I didn't do that, I would pick them up without a second thought, without even reading the back cover. As I have said time and time again, it's Sarah freaking Dessen. She can do no wrong.

Until now. Until now, I've loved every one of her books. But this weekend, I had my first little bit of free time, and I ran out to buy her newest novel, What Happened to Goodbye. And... I didn't love it. Not even close. Which is very hard for me. I feel such a loyalty, such a love for the Dessen name. I really, really wanted to love the book. But, the truth is, I don't know if I would have finished it if it didn't have the Dessen name on the cover.

I think my criticisms can be best illustrated by the exchange I had with my dad last night:

Dad: So, how's the book?
Me: Good, but it's boring me to tears. 

One of the biggest overarching problems I had was character. I just didn't care that much about Mclean. I was so bored. She kept talking about how she was tired of reinventing herself, and how she didn't know who she was. That's fine. Realistic, even, for a teenager. But she has to have something. Something I can love about her. I spent so much of the book trying to find that thing, but I couldn't. Mclean was perfectly nice, but also terribly bland. After four hundred pages, she was still finding herself, and I was still looking for a character I could invest in. That's a challenge, which really limited my enjoyment of the rest of the book.

I had to push to get through the first hundred pages, I was so bored. I wasn't buying into Mclean, I didn't care about Dave or her dad or her issues with her mother. The book was unstable from there, with a few moments where I thought it had taken a turn for the better, but, in the end, it didn't change course all that much. I was bored, frustrated, disappointed. I expected so much more.

It's not like it was badly written. Of course not. This is still Sarah freaking Dessen. The writing has to be good. But the rest of it was less enchanting. I think for a first time Dessen reader, the following issues wouldn't even register. But for this seasoned fan, it was all I could think about.

It felt like someone had pulled back the curtain, revealing all the mechanics of what goes into a good Dessen novel. It felt so laboured, so paint-by-the-numbers Dessen.

If you read young adult romance like I do, you come to accept some basic issues. For instance, you will always be aware of the male lead, because his physical attributes will be described in multiple paragraphs, rather than the one liners afforded to lesser characters. Also, you know that the guy and the girl will get together at the end, no matter what. But, you accept that there's no way to avoid such traps, no way to sidestep such pitfalls. You accept those predictable problems. You don't let them annoy you too much.

But you don't accept this much predictability. I would literally be reading along, and think "wow, this is just like _____________ Sarah Dessen book". This sexual tension scene is just like in the The Truth About Forever. This basketball metaphor is just like the bike symbolism in Along for the Ride. This character arc is just like Ruby's from Lock and Key. So many of the major moments in the book felt formulaic like that--cheap knock offs of previous Dessen novels.

That's the thing. It was the Sarah Dessen formula, and it wasn't even done all that well! Dave was not a true Dessen boy. He does not belong among the ranks of Wes or Owen or Dexter. The model motif was so forced. And the ending was lack luster. Nothing special. Usually, Sarah's novels are full of great lines. This time, so many of those lines rang false. Even the integration of character's from previous novels, a Dessen trademark, was less exciting than usual. I've had enough of Jason. Yeah, we got Heidi, Colby, Lakeview. I wanted more.

In all, the book was nothing special. Certainly not up to the super special standards I have for Sarah Dessen. Of course, I'll still pick up her next book without hesitation. But if that one is weak as well, I may have to start reading the back covers.

I'll always love Sarah for what she's given me, and I'll probably read every book she ever publishes. I just hope they're better than this one was.


  1. I'm sorry but I think I'd have to disagree with you. I have my own blog and was looking for book covers for this book. I am a HUGE fan of Sarah Dessen which is why I immediately started reading your post. Frankly I thought that What Happened to Goodbye was terrific.

    I agree with you about the ending. It was empty and I did expect more. Also Dave, he was not exactly my favorite Dessen boy (Owen is he's absolutely awesome) but I did think that the book was interesting. I really liked it, its not my favorite (Just Listen is) but I thought it was entertaining and that some girls could relate to Mclean and understand her. We all have different opinions and Mclean was trying to find herself, and Dave helped her. I still think the story was good especially how it showed that Mclean reached out to her own family.
    Like I said everyone has their own opinion, and I think your quite wrong. I'm planning to write my own today on my blog. I hope there is no offence in this comment.
    Respectfully C.

  2. I'm glad you liked it!

    I understand everything you're saying. I respect the book. I just don't love it the way I love Truth About Forever or This Lullaby or whatever. Part of that, I'm sure, is just personal preference. Also, I have insanely high standards for Sarah Dessen. If this was an unknown author, I probably would have liked it enough. But it's just that I was expecting more. I know, you probably have high standards for her too, and she probably lived up to your expectations. But it just wasn't that way for me.

    One final note. I am not "offended" by your comment. When I review books, I expect that people will disagree with my opinion. That's completely fine. But I just have to say, that just because you don't agree with opinion, it doesn't make it "wrong". It means our opinions clash. Your opinion isn't right, my opinion isn't wrong (and vice versa).


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