Genres: contemporary, middle grade
Bridge is an accident survivor who's wondering why she's still alive. Emily has new curves and an almost-boyfriend who wants a certain kind of picture. Tabitha sees through everybody's games--or so she tells the world. The three girls are best friends with one rule: No fighting. Can it get them through seventh grade?
This year everything is different for Sherm Russo as he gets to know Bridge Barsamian. What does it mean to fall for a girl--as a friend?
On Valentine's Day, an unnamed high school girl struggles with a betrayal. How long can she hide in plain sight?
Goodbye Stranger affectingly and realistically tells the intertwining stories of three young teenagers navigating the confusing and tumultuous time of early adolescence. Bridge, an accident survivor is looking for meaning on why she’s still here. Sherm is dealing with the aftershock of a family betrayal. And an unnamed 9th grader (written in a surprisingly effective second person) is grappling with a potentially friendship-ending mistake.
The story is about how life gets so suddenly and shockingly complicated in middle school. And it is about how teens deal with the newness, rawness, and intensity of their emotions. Best friends can suddenly betray. A beloved grandparent can walk out on his family. A boy can text you asking for “a picture ;)” but what does it mean? Throughout reading this book I couldn’t help pausing repeatedly to think, “Man, it is so stressful to be a teenager.” The narrative seamlessly intertwines to show how each storyline is related. Rebecca Stead has a remarkable talent for being in the heads of these young teens. The confusion, the joy, the uncertainties, and the blithe confidence–she nails it.
All is so skillfully and realistically rendered. Bridge and her two best friends, Tab and Em, are such perfectly imperfect characters. And their portrayal of adolescent girl friendship is everything I wanted to see in a book. Times get tough and friends do things others disagree with. The girls fight, and they make awful mistakes sometimes. But they stick together through it all and make the effort to understand and support each other even when they disagree.
I feel like so often teen girl friendship portrayals fall into the “mean girl” trap where the typical mean girl foil ends up becoming the focus of the story rather than the friendship is being disrupted. In the case of our unnamed 9th grader, there is a mean girl but she’s there as a way of showing how friendships and people change and that we can choose to move on from the people who hurt us and choose better people and better friends for ourselves. And it serves as a way to show understanding to even those former friends who so callously betrayed. This is unmistakably a feminist novel and an incredibly compassionate one.
Taking the backseat somewhat is Sherm’s story. Told in epistolary form, Sherm writes letters to the grandfather who has abruptly left Sherm’s grandmother, his wife of fifty years. Stead so endearingly and tenderly captures the heartbreak and confusion of this situation. And there aren’t easy answers, and maybe no answers at all. But there can be understanding and there can be hope. He also features as a non-POV character in Bridge’s story where the two develop an earnest and innocent friendship. There’s no romance, not truly, in this book, but there are some truly adorable moments and the clear kernels of the beginning of what could be something more.
The emotional keystone of the novel for me, though, is a scene between Bridge and her older brother, Jamie, where they ruminate on the purpose of it all. Life, the universe, everything–why are we here? Bridge has been struggling with this ever since her near fatal accident when a nurse told her she must have survived for a reason. What was the reason? She feels the weight of this unknown purpose every day. Who wouldn’t? If, like me, you’re a sucker for touching sibling relationships in books then you’ll definitely want to pick this one up.
I went into this book thinking it was going to be much lighter than it actually is. And the tone itself isn’t heavy, in fact there are many moments of cuteness and light, but the subjects tackled are so serious. It’s actually masterful that Stead handles so many difficult and tough subjects with such a carefully measured balance of serious and playful. There is even more than a touch of the philosophical both with the aforementioned Bridge and Jamie scene, and in the discussion that references the book’s title. We are changing all the time but who is the stranger? The person that we were or the person we’re becoming? Do not worry, though. The novel does end on a particularly strong high note. It sings. You’ll smile.
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.