I’m sure we’ve all dealt with book hangovers at one point in our life. You know that feeling when you miss a particular style of writing or an author’s quirks? It’s not even about hating that a book ended or having an empty feeling in our guts. I guess this is why I had highly anticipated reading Rebecca Stead’s newest book. When I read her Newbery Medal book, I felt emotionally drained from the ending and how bittersweet it was. Fear not, Stead fan!! Goodbye Stranger is a welcome home party with a new set of quirky characters and challenges!
I didn’t think much of middle school because it’s such a bad stage and kids are going through puberty so hormones are flying like crazy and people are plain mean to each other for no reason. Rebecca Stead understands that perfectly. The whole ‘awkward silence’ and painful moments of social humiliation and ‘uncool moves.’
The voice of our protagonist Bridge resonated with me because we all have that one friend (Em) who grew up too fast and is now part of the cool crowd. In its barest bones, this is about everyday life and navigating the social perils of seventh grade. That’s the year that means you’re not the top of the pile but neither are you the fresh-faced newbies. Stead gets it. Seventh grade is just plain grueling and making friends outside of your grade is even more difficult especially (for Em) if your crush runs in an 8th grade friend circle. Lucky for her, she’s in JV soccer and she’s good at it so up she goes to joined multiple friend groups. There’s a lot of hidden moments that boast of independence. Little actions that speak louder than words. The friendship between the trio is like super-glue strong and I loved how the author didn’t have to say it but instead showed it in each and every interactions. I believe that different people can become great friends and although it usually starts with similarities, it’s not what holds a bond together. I can attest through my 19 years of socializing and I can see that although I align myself with people like me, I enjoy making friends who are the complete opposite from me.
Some of the best epiphanies that Stead writes about is the time Bridge spends with Sherm. She says it should be awkward and I agree because they barely know each other and to more stress on it, conversation is two-way. It’s always safer to carry on a conversation with 3 or more people because that means there’s an extra person to continuously stimulate and extend a conversation. Bridge, luckily, instantly connects with Sherm and their conversations are easy and flow naturally. This, THIS is what I’ve been trying to find and it’s a rare occurrence that I can talk so comfortably with another person without feeling the need to come up with ‘topic-starters’. I’m not an awkward person but it just so happens that I get off on a rough start with strangers because I feel pressure to grill them about their life histories. I loved that Bridge and Sherm share a laidback relationship. Those are usually hard-won and come only after long periods of association.
Although Bridge is the main character, the drama mostly revolves around Emily and her encounters with peer pressure and double standards. The blurb says double standards and damn right, there is! Tab, the other best friend in the trio, is highly involved in feminism and learns a lot about the portrayals and reactions towards girls and boys. Girls can easily be labeled as a slut, whore, skank, but boys just downright get off the hook. I liked that there was lots of girl power and emphasis on the fact that clothing does not define a girl. I remember one passage in which Em complained why it was only okay if a girl took pictures in her bikini at a beach. Anywhere else entails baggage and judgment from others.
Schools need more books like this rather than The Scarlet Letter because people can actually relate to it and understand how messed up society is. It easily pertains to today’s curriculum and comparisons can be made to incidents of double standards. What a girl can wear to school is severely limited compared to a boy. It’s been unfair on so many levels and tell me why is it that a girl can’t wear shorts/skirts above the knees while guys strut around with their pants sagging and half their butts hanging out?
Rebecca also does this awesome thing called second-person narrative that she did in When You Reach Me and it was so intriguing because I can never resist a little mystery. The identity of the character is unknown because that person is referred to as ‘You’ and it steadily runs on the single day of Valentine’s Day. (Aside from that, the rest of the book progress chronologically.) I spent minutes on end speculating on the tantalizing clues that the author dropped. It didn’t take long for it to click but I still nonetheless relished the chapter of the character reveal to prove that I was correct. I gradually realized that the point of the unknown narrative was simply to show a different social situation apart from what Em, Tab, and Bridge dealt with. Although the Valentine’s Day narrator had a different life completely separate from the middle school, those two somewhat intersected in small unexpected ways. I enjoyed the dichotomy of the narrator’s life from Bridge’s and it made a juxtaposition of two person from diverse walks of life.
I’m not sure if I mentioned it in my When You Reach Me review but race plays a irrelevant factor throughout the book. Since the urban setting of Manhattan means diversity is all around, there’s a lot of holidays that need to be explained. Stead makes the point of bringing up Bridge’s nationality as Armenian and casually inserts a food from the country. I didn’t really pick up on the deliberateness of the situation because it was so tastefully done and the same went for Tab who was Indian. She joined the Hindi Club at school and her mother fasted for a moon holiday. It was actually very interesting and I liked how there was race but it was a thing that just is. Ethnicity is so hard for authors to deal with sometimes because they can either dispose of the whole ‘cultural background’ thing and just label a person and leave it at that. What a lot of people tend to forget is that culture partially defines a person and I, as a Chinese, have received quite a hefty amount of influence from Chinese culture. I admire the author’s tenacity in inclusion of cultural tidbits because sure, Goodbye Stranger, is a coming-of-age novel focused on friendship and love, but it can still incorporate other elements.
This all strengthens the book and I know I didn’t really talk about the plot and I really can’t because it’s something readers have to experience themselves. It’s complicated to explain the plot because it’s comprised of so many different plotlines and there’s so many stories involved that I don’t want to really spoil.
Thank you Wendy Lamb/Random House for providing me with an advanced reader’s copy through Netgalley.