Tiptoeing Through Sarahland: Sarah Dessen’s What Happened to Goodbye

There are a couple of perks in my day job. One of which is sometimes getting my hands on advanced reading copies (ARCs) of highly anticipated reads. There are two sides of this. One, my inner impatient girl doesn’t have to wait as long to read a book she’s been waiting TWO YEARS for. Two, my inner impatient girl now has to wait EVEN LONGER for the next book. There is also the fact that most ARCs have typos, distracting drops in punctuation, or poor pagination, that I am never quite sure is supposed to be there.  So, although the ARC of Sarah Dessen’s What Happened to Goodbye, contained some of these issues, the strength of the novel over-shone in the end. (Besides, from a collectors point of view, it is kind of cool.)

At VCFA, we are asked to read like a writer, not like a reader. I’ve been doing this for sometime now. I think it started a few years ago, when I wanted to figure out how Kenneth Oppel did that thing he does with Airborn, or, what it was about Arthur Slade’s Dust, that made it so haunting.* And what is it about Libba Bray’s style and tone that is so friggin’ funny.** (And, of course, we all know of my love affairs with L.M. Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder.)

When I read Along for the Ride a few years ago, I went into a sort of Sarah Dessen reading frenzy. I read everything except for two books, Someone Like You and Keeping the Moon. I started noticing certain, what will I call them, “Dessianisms;” some that I love and some, that I must admit, I find distracting.  By the end of the novel, however, she subtly slips in that surprise element that knocks you to your knees, making me ask myself late last night: “How did she do that? What did she do with words that cut me to my core thus allowing tears to spontaneously spring forth?” This, of course, kept me up late into the night, as I started thinking about writing this blog post, before falling asleep.

In her latest novel, Mclean and her father have been moving around from city to city, running from the fall out of a very messy divorce. In reaction to this, Mclean re-invents herself in each new city. New name, hairstyle, likes and dislikes, she hides whomever she used to be, careful to keep away from making any new connections, because she knows that they aren’t staying very long. Mclean’s father is one of those guys who fixes up restaurants on the brink of going under. So, once the restaurant is running again (or shut down) they move onto the next one. In Lakeview, however, Mclean cannot keep up the pretense any longer. She starts to make friends, including the very brilliant, basketball-playing challenged, Dave, and gets involved in a local community project.
This is what I love about Dessen.

First, there is Dessen’s way of integrating her world into the action of the novel. Stepping into “Sarahland” as her website is aptly named, is like taking a vacation in a town you’ve visited many times before. You know the geography, the high schools, this time Jackson, the beach town, Colby, and the local university. Much like Montgomery’s Avonlea, Dessen has a vision of a town, its suburbs, that are as specific as the roads people drive to go to dinner. People from other novels make cameo appearances or are mentioned. Like a inside joke with her fans. 

Within this larger world, she zooms into one part of it – thus allowing her to connect this story to others in very subtle ways.  In WHTG, this is, at first,  limited to the restaurant that Mclean’s father is fixing, Luna Blu, the neighborhood, and Jackson High. As Mclean begins to expand within, the geography also expands to include, a local bakery chain, a library, the university and outside the city limits of Lakeview, Colby.  This mirrors, the community project that Mclean is working on, which is a small replica of the town. 
Second, there is the way she integrates symbolism within the action of the novel. Basketball is an integral part of the novel’s plot right down to why the main character is named Mclean.*** It is one of the ways she and her father connected when she was younger. It is one of the reasons why they are now running away. It is the physical force of a basketball that defines a moment between her and Dave. It isn’t just the game, but how Dessen uses expressions that specifically refer to the game. It is part of the narrative of the novel. It mixes in with the other plot elements, like building the model or trying to fix a broken restaurant.
The more that I think about this, the more I see how brilliantly Dessen does this! With Opal, the manager of the restaurant, trying to organize the model building, it is falling to pieces, but when Mclean brings her new (highly organized) friend Deb, in, it is like they finally have the right coach to make things work. But, I don’t want to give too much away, so I shall stop here.
Three, the core relationships. Dessen’s master of dialogue and rhythm helped me fall for Dave’s witty (and sometimes old fashioned) speech, love Deb’s talent for organizing, and get so angry at Mclean’s mother right along with her. (She has the passive aggressive tone, the overbearing and overly emotional nuances that were just so incredibly irritating.)

Four, there is that moment in a Dessen novel, that moment that I mentioned earlier, when the character cannot run anymore. They try and realize that all of their defenses no longer work. They run. They go somewhere familiar. Somewhere that Dessen has weaved in and out of the narrative, mostly using flashbacks. Now, as much as I get a little distracted by her long flashback sequences, I can see how she uses them to serve a purpose. In this novel, it is part of bringing the past into the present and allowing Mclean to reach the breaking point. It is at that moment, that the tears fall. 
And five, the epiphanies. Not just seeing the action from a bird’s eye view, but the wisdom that the comes from the character’s new found understanding of things. It always just seems like it is a bit of wisdom for us.  
One of my favourite quotes: 
“If only you could really use a failproof system to know who was worth keeping and who needed to be thrown away. It would make it so much easier to move through the world, picking and choosing what connections to make, or whether to make any at all.” (WHTG, Sarah Dessen, 211)

I love watching how Dessen tells her story – even if I think she may use too many flashbacks. I can see how she uses them as part of the telling and crafting of her character’s story. I appreciate how she does this and why. 

And because it was so hard to say goodbye to Sarahland, I’m leaping into the two books that I left behind. That, to me, is a sign of a writer that I want to spend time with. I hope that one day I can create a world like that for my readers.

*Sidebar, do check out Arthur Slade’s blog. He’s experimenting with e-books right now and being quite transparent about it. Quiite empowering for authors.

**I get to read Beauty Queens next. WOOT!

***Yes, I do not fail to see the irony of the fact that she uses basketball as an allegory as I have in a recent blog post.

About Melanie J. Fishbane

My novel, MAUD: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery was published in 2017 through Penguin Random House on April 25, 2017. I hold an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Here I talk about my writing process, things I love, and creative people who inspire me.
This entry was posted in Authors, Book Reviews, Teen lit. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Tiptoeing Through Sarahland: Sarah Dessen’s What Happened to Goodbye

  1. Fred LeBaron says:

    I was almost scared to read this, not wanting to know too much about the book, but unable to resist, so thanks for being sensitive about that. You really articulated many of the great things about SD's novels, things I've been unable to put into words, but recognized when you said them. There's always that sense of things teetering, but somehow coming out alright (not unlike a Wish Catering event?) that makes the experience so compelling and satisfying. It's so true what you say about the world of Sarahland, too – I wish I could vacation in Colby and have some of those Last Chance onion rings! Thanks for a great post, and the inside scoop on a much awaited book!

  2. Thank you Fred for your great comments. I'm so glad that you enjoyed the post. I also appreciate that you picked up on the fact that I was trying to write about the book without giving TOO much away. I think that people should enjoy the surprised that come along with good books. You will not be disappointed. Best…

  3. pamela huber says:

    It's quite funny that half an hour before I stumbled onto this I finished reading The Truth About Forever for the fourth time, not only my favorite Sarah Dessen book, but my favorite book, period (Sarah Dessen also being tied as my favorite author). I was also scared to know too much about her next book. However, I just wanted to thank you for your insightful comments about her style which is so inspiring, both to readers and fellow writers like myself. I am so happy you are helping spread awareness of her to a wider audience. Finally, I truly hope you enjoy Keeping the Moon, my second favorite Sarah Dessen book.

  4. Melanie says:

    Thank you Pamela, I'm so glad that you enjoyed the post. I love Truth About Forever too. I think of it as one of my favourites. I'm enjoying Keeping the Moon a lot. It has a different vibe than her later books. I am curious, if you don't mind me asking, how did you "stumble" upon the blog. I'm interested in how people are finding the blog. 🙂 Thanks!

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