Once upon a time I imagined we’d be that family. You know the one: the one where we all just get along famously, with no childish hijinks or tweenage angst or teenage ennui or parental impatience about. It turns out, we’re human after all, subject to the fits and foibles that make us just that: created in God’s image, but nowhere near “arrived.” This is one reason I appreciate a good problem novel, especially one that I can pass on to my children for a bit of unintrusive bibliotherapy.
Rebecca Stead has written that and a bit more in her book Goodbye Stranger. This is the story of a trio of BFFs who are facing seventh grade together. However, things aren’t quite the same as they’ve always been: Em has a new body, Tab has a new mission, and Bridge just wants things to stay the same. Things get really complicated when Em gets a maybe-boyfriend and sticks a toe into the world of s*exting. The real complication comes, though, when the pictures hit the internet. The fallout from that is the stuff of middle school (and maybe high school) drama, but it’s full of heart. I love how Stead gives Em a real personality so that we don’t just see her as the “bad girl.” I love how a plot twist (that I admit I never saw coming) even puts another spin on the complication. I love how Stead intersperses the Em/Tab/Bridge story with vignettes from the point of view of an unknown narrator who has skipped school for the day due to her own unidentified crisis. All this is resolved by the end of the novel, making the resolution of the main story even more poignant. We also get a tiny glimpse into the world of one of the supporting characters, a boy who becomes Bridge’s best friend by the end of the story, via letters he has written to his absentee grandfather. Relational complications abound!
The money quote for me is this one:
Bridge knew why she as here. It’s why we’re all here, she thought.
Call it Mr. Partridge with his black-and-white cookies. Call it Em standing on that stage with her knees shaking but her voice strong. Call it Jamie looking awkward in the doorway of her bedroom after she’d had the mummy nightmare. Call it love.
“Are all those pizzas we’ve been eating really in the budget?” she whispered to Mr. Partridge.
He looked down at her, surprised. “I’ll tell you a secret,” he said. “Pretty much nothing is in the budget.”
And then the audience burst into applause.
Sans context, maybe it makes no sense. But I’m learning this: love and budget never belong in the same sentence because love costs everything. And that’s the way it has to be.
Highly Recommended. (Yearling, 2015)