Now Mclean and her father have moved again, this time to Lakeview, to save (or close) a restaurant called Luna Blu - and instead of renaming herself yet again, Mclean unintentionally shared her real first name with someone and is now unsure how to act. How can she "just be herself" if she's not sure who that girl is anymore?
Such is the premise of Sarah Dessen's latest novel, What Happened to Goodbye. While many YA novels have characters searching for themselves, the protagonists aren't always as blatantly aware of that search (or repression) as Mclean is. Thankfully, she isn't overly philosophical (or whiny) about it. Instead, she takes things as they come, and allows herself to be surprised by what happens.
As always, Dessen populates her novel with a variety of teen and adult characters that influence the life of her main character. There's Opal, who has worked at the restaurant since she was Mclean's age; Dave, Mclean's next door neighbor, the genius who opted to attend a "normal" high school after years of an accelerated educational experience; down-to-Earth Riley, Dave's best girl friend, not girlfriend; lively Tracey; do-gooder Deb; and the rest of the wait staff, one of whom will be familiar to dedicated Dessen readers. (Sarah's fans will recognize some other locales in the story; the author always ties someone or something in from her previous works, making the novels subtly connected rather than being direct sequels or companions.) In this novel, the characters are brought together by the restaurant, a town project, and - though she may not realize it at first - Mclean.
It is likely that readers will feel a connection to Mclean as well. She's likable without being too shy nor too outgoing, and as she tries to take things one day at a time, the pages keep turning, the investment in this story steadily worthwhile.
Mclean has a close relationship with her father, who knows what he's talking about when attempting to help ailing restaurants, as he used to own his own. Meanwhile, Mclean's mother - now a put-together, well-to-do wife and mother to toddling twins - tries repeatedly to reconnect with her daughter. Adult readers will understand her parents' plights, and teens who re-read this novel in ten or twenty years will see it from a new perspective.
Though Dessen is known for her boy-meets-girl plots, that's not what draws to me to her novels. I enjoy her works because she creates realistic characters, plausible storylines, and communities filled with a varied population: different ages, types, personalities, and histories. That may be the key right there: she gives her characters histories. Their stories don't start on page one; they start a long time before that. Even when the protagonist is only fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old, she has a past that informs her present and her future. We all carry both good and bad experiences with us, and so do Dessen's main characters. That weight helps makes them fully-formed and fully realized. Rather than just moving through one plot, going from point A to point B for the sake of just this story, I feel as if I'm seeing a slice of the character's life, and I know that they'll keep moving forward long after I've closed the book. That, to me, is a happy ending. I don't need characters to be kissed or wed or declared the winner in the last scene; I just want them to be happy, and to know that they're going to be okay.
So put down that comfort food and pick up What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen instead. You'll be served a wonderful meal (including fried pickles) at Luna Blu, and you'll meet seventeen-year-old Mclean Sweet, a girl who realizes that there's more to life than just passing by, passing time, and passing through.
But in the real world, you couldn't really just split a family down the middle, mom on one side, dad the other, with the child divided equally between. It was like when you ripped a piece of paper in two: no matter how you tried, the seams never fit exactly right again. It was what you couldn't see, those tiniest of pieces, that were lost in the severing, and their absence kept everything from being complete. - Page 165
It was amazing what a little noise and brightness could do to a house and a life, how much the smallest bit of each could change everything. - Page 301
Read my reviews of Sarah Dessen's other novels.