Monday, May 9, 2011

Review: What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen

Tags: YA, contemporary, family, identity, restaurants


After her parents’ idyllic marriage ended in a terrible, prolonged, and public divorce, Mclean has moved four times in the past two years with her restauranteer father. At each new school, she manages to make a new identity for herself, but for some reason, at Lakeview, the old Mclean comes out and, to her horror, seems to like it there.

Putting down roots is dangerous, and Mclean tries her best not to get involved in people’s lives. But they begin to worm their ways into her heart: the eccentric workers at her father’s restaurant, her new friends, and Dave, the boy next door. Will she be able to stand losing them when she inevitably has to move again?


Do you know the Sarah Dessen formula? An “everygirl” with an unusual name; a strained parent-daughter relationship full of misunderstandings; narration that at many times has its typical, literal meaning, along with a larger thematic one; and a nice-boy love interest. Despite the predictability of the elements, however, Dessen never, ever, ever fails to deliver a poignant and teen-pleasing read. Her tenth novel, WHAT HAPPENED TO GOODBYE, will satisfy old and new fans.

There is probably no other contemporary YA author that I read as consistently as Sarah Dessen. I was thinking about why this is. Anyone can take the aforementioned elements of the formula and write a novel containing those, but Dessen’s attention to typically overlooked human details is unmatched, and is what makes her books stand out. The narration effortlessly makes note of the quirks that make characters human: the funny way they move their hands before they speak, for example, or their habit of turning on all the lights in the house when they come home. I think it was a passage about doing laundry in WHAT HAPPENED TO GOODBYE that made me realize Dessen’s gift of writing about these details. For most people, laundry is such a part of their life’s routine that we don’t stop to think about how one’s particular attitude towards and approach to doing laundry is very telling of their personality. But Dessen notes this, as well as other details about everyday life, bringing her novels several rungs above other comparable books.

There is little I find that I can say about characterization, plot, pacing, themes, or writing style that is specific to WHAT HAPPENED TO GOODBYE and not just generalizable to all of Dessen’s novels. Instead, let me just list all the things about this book that struck me. The lovable chaos at Mclean’s dad’s restaurant. The community “model of the town” project that the characters work on. Dave’s charming sense of humor. Deb. (Deb, Deb, Deb! Can there be a story focusing on her, pretty please?) The college basketball lifestyle, and Riley’s parents.

Okay, so obviously part of me wishes this story had been more about some of the secondary characters instead of Mclean’s pretty typical Dessen-esque bildungsroman, but hey, that’s not going to stop WHAT HAPPENED TO GOODBYE from becoming a bestseller. Read it if you’re a decade-old Dessen fan like I am. If you’re new to Sarah Dessen’s writings, I’d probably recommend starting with one of her older books, such as This Lullaby or The Truth About Forever, but either way you spin your approach to reading this book, you will finish it feeling very happy and content.

Cover discussion: I know, I KNOW. I'm such a sucker for these girly-girl "evocative" covers. I fully admit it. I love how all of Sarah's covers have this in common amongst them.

Penguin / May 10, 2011 / Hardcover / 416pp. / $19.99

Sent by publisher for review. Thanks, Penguin Group!


  1. I totally agree with you about Sarah Dessen. I remember reading This Lullaby and thinking that she can make something as mundane as drinking diet Coke epic somehow. I don't know how she does it. But nobody does it like Sarah Dessen. I'm so excited that you loved What Happened to Goodbye. I will preorder this! I cannot wait to get it!

  2. As a fan of Dessen since my teens, there's no way I can pass up reading any of her recent releases! You're right about the predictable elements, but I've yet to find a book of hers that I didn't really enjoy. Lock & Key is my favorite in recent memory, and I'm looking forward to reading this one, too!

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  4. I'm ashamed to admit that I'm a Dessen virgin, never read any of her books! Though all this hype about her in the book blogging community has made me interested. Maybe I'll pick up The Truth About Forever or This Lullaby soon :)

  5. Dessen has the ability to make the mundane into meaningful things. its the little things in life that make us who we are and I love Dessen novels for focussing on these elements. Her novels are heartfelt and come across as genuine. Also the way she gives weight to non-romantic relationships in our lives (parents, siblings, friends) which are just as important as the romantic ones and often a more interesting read in Dessen novels than the romantic ones. I loved how she presented a great brother in law in Lock and Key, something I have never come across in my reading (and i've been reading for years). Jamie was great and he honestly stole the show from Nate. Perhaps its a cultural thing but in my culture younger siblings have a jokey relationship with a brother in law (older sister's husband)and we can demand anything from him. his job is to get out of such demands by using his wit. for example on the wedding day we dont let him pass in to the venue unless he's paid us a sum of money which we demand. then the groom side continue to lower the sum and try to get by without paying. (We got £200 when my sis got married). its all a bit of fun but its also steeped in our cutlture. I really related to this part of Lock and Key.
    anyway great review and am looking forward to this one.

  6. What Happened to Goodbye was the first Sarah Dessen book I read and I really enjoyed it and will definitely pick up another when I'm looking for this type of book (per your formula point). Totally with you on Deb. Loved her!

  7. For me, Dessen is the queen of contemporary YA :) I just love her books, including this one! I really love how her plots are slightly understated, a bit simple, but there's so much depth to it and it's pretty much universally relatable-ish :) Great review!

  8. You just nailed everything I love about Sarah Dessen. Formula, done awesome. Can't wait for this one!

  9. I am going to hold out for the UK/Aust cover, like most of my others. Oh, but it's hard to wait those extra weeks. Great review Steph.

  10. I can't wait for this book. I preordered and it already shipped but it's still on the way. I'm so excited! I want to get to know this new characters.

  11. Great review! I really don't know how she makes everything so interesting, but she does. I found some of it not as great as in past novels, but I'm with ya on the secondary characters. I absolutely adored Dave and Deb! I hope to see them pop up in future books.

  12. It's interesting to read your review, since we seem to feel similarly on a lot of Dessen's strengths, but I thought this book didn't quite work because it is SO similar to dessen's earlier books. After her first few novels she seems to have fallen into a formula for her novels, and even though I keep reading's getting a little old. I agree with you on Deb, though; her character suggested so much more than we get to see in this novel, and I'm be surprised if Dessen doesn't decide to give her her own book.

    -- Ellen

  13. I co-sign everything you say here, especially about the wonder that is DEB! I was also a huge fan of Opal, although for some reason I pictured her far closer to McLean's age than she turned out to be.

  14. Sarah Dessen is a well known writer when it comes to young adults. She really captors the fascination with Remy's love life, and life in general; also with how Remy responds to things. This Lullaby is a book that almost every teenage girl will love.


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