Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Goodbye Stranger is a juvenile novel focusing on friendship and growing up in the post-modern world and all the unique problems that can entail.

In the Prologue readers learn that Bridget Barsamian spent all of grade three in hospital after being struck by a car. Miraculously she survived the accident and returned to school after extensive treatment.

The main story is told by Bridget who now goes by Bridge and is in seventh grade. Bridge lives with her mom who is a cellist, her father who owns a coffee shop called the Bear Bar and her older brother Jamie who is in grade ten.  Bridge's best friends are Tabitha (Tab) and Emily (Em). In fourth grade the three girls made a pact that they would never fight.

In October of seventh grade things are beginning to change between the three friends. Emily's body is changing and she begins getting texts from an eight grade boy who sends her pictures of different parts of his body. Tab is opinionated and involved in many clubs. Bridge still draws animals on her assignments like they did in fourth grade and she's wearing a set of cat ears every day.

In English class Bridget has her paper marked by Sherm Russo who sits next to her. Sherm is bit nerdy but very friendly as he tells Bridge that he doesn't believe the moon landing ever happened. At the clubs fair, when Bridge sees Sherm is part of the Tech Crew she decides to join up. Tech Crew is run by Mr. Partridge who is a very intense teacher but also very kind.

During an intruder alert drill, Bridge can't help but notice Sherm - how he sits, the colour of his eyes and his smell. They whisper back and forth about breakfast and Sherm asks Bridge to go to the Dollar-Eight Diner to get cinnamon toast after school on Friday.  Bridge agrees. After school that same day Em reveals to Bridge and Tab that she and Patrick McCormack have been exchanging pictures and she shows them a picture of his belly button that he's sent to her. She doesn't really know what to do about the picture.

On Friday, Bridge's dinner with Sherm goes well. He tells Bridge that that his grandfather left his grandmother this past summer after fifty years. Sherm also tells Bridge that he remembers when she got hit by the car and tells her that his grandfather spent the night at the hospital along with many other people who were concerned about her. Bridge in turn reveals to Sherm that a nurse told her that she didn't die for a reason. But Sherm doesn't believe that she's any luckier than anyone else.

Meanwhile Em's picture contest with Patrick goes to new levels when he sends her a picture of himself in his underwear in what appears to be a game of chicken. For Em this means she must send something equally risque back to Patrick otherwise she'll be seen as being afraid. Bridge is horrified that Em is considering even taking such a picture but Em tells her that Julie Hopper told her if she doesn't send him a picture, she will lose Patrick. Em tells Bridge that she's told Tab what she's planning but that Tab is "all judgy now".  Despite Tab's reservations, Em is desperate to have Bridge help her. Bridge reluctantly agrees and takes a picture of Bridge wearing jeans and her mother's lacy bra. Em promises Bridge she will not send the picture to anyone until she talks with Bridge again.

The next day Sherm receives a picture the next morning on his cell phone with no text. Bridge notices that strange things are happening at school, people being called to the office and Em is extremely upset. Bridge learns the reason Em is freaking out is because she did send the picture to Patrick but even worse it has somehow been sent to David Marcel, another student in the class, who has in turn passed it along to other people. When Tab finds out she is furious at Bridge for her part in helping Em take the picture. When the group of friends meet in the fourth floor washroom,  Em tells her friends that David Marcel sent the picture to other students and now everyone in the school knows what has happened . Sherm confesses that he told Mr. Ramos after the picture was sent to him because he wanted to stop the picture from being spread around further. Em is furious at Sherm and yells at him to leave.

Em tells Bridge that Patrick told her someone took his phone and sent the picture to David. Bridge finds this scenario unbelievable and she tries to convince Em that Patrick is not trustworthy and that she should not be friends with him. However, Em believes Patrick and she refuses to give him up. She admits to liking the picture and tells Bridge that she's not ashamed for looking good.

The fallout from the picture is fast and furious. Mr. Ramos has the boys erase Em's picture from their phones. Em has to tell her mother and enlists Bridge's help in doing so. Sherm is worried Bridge won't like him anymore but she tells him she was only mad that he didn't tell her about the picture and going to see Mr. Ramos. David Marcel is suspended. Em loses her spot in the Talentine show and is treated badly by some of the students. Throughout this, Bridge and Sherm grow closer, Em and Patrick stay together, and the three friends must come to terms with what happened at school.


Goodbye Stranger is a fairly enjoyable read that deals with the issues involved in posting inappropriate personal cell phone pictures online. At its core is the theme of friendship and its ability to endure during during difficult times.

Stead realistically portrays middle school relationships and the modern problems young people face as they transition from childhood into teen years. The focus is on the dangers of social media and body image as well as how girls are treated differently than boys when problems arise. These dangers are largely unrecognized by young people because they lack the ability to see the consequences. For example, the character Em struggles to understand how a picture of herself that she feels good about, ends up creating so many problems for everyone, gets her labelled a slut and singled out for special treatment by the school. Tab mistakenly believes that posting Patrick's picture so that he can understand what Em has suffered through is a form of civil disobedience and will maybe teach him a lesson. Instead she makes things worse for everyone. Bridge and Tab both understood that Em taking this picture was wrong, yet Bridge helped Em take the picture in the name of friendship.

The theme of friendship is woven throughout the novel. Despite all that has happened, especially after Bridge helps Em with her poor choice of taking and posting the picture, after Tab posts Patrick's picture, the three friends ultimately fall back on their promise not to fight and find forgiveness for one another.An interesting contrast is shown between Em and Patrick's relationship and Bridge and Sherm's relationship. While Em and Patrick focus less on communication and more on social media, Bridge and Sherm's relationship starts out as a friendship that is grounded in communication and mutual understanding. It is the healthier one and the one that endures as shown in the epilogue.

One of the more interesting characters in Goodbye Stranger is Sherm who is struggling to come to terms with what he views as the betrayal of his grandfather to his beloved Nonna. He's not the only one struggling with this in the novel, but the reader comes to see how hurt he is that his father has left his grandmother after fifty years of marriage to be with another woman. Sherm writes his grandfather letters every day but never sends them to him, although in the end he does. In one of the letters he talks about how his father was trying to get his grandfather and Nonna to take a trip back to Italy to rediscover who he is. Sherm wants to know "Is the new you the stranger? Or is the stranger the person you leave behind?" This exchange touches on the theme of identity, especially relevant for tweens and teens who are just beginning to discover who they are. As we grow up, sometimes we are very different from the person we once were.

This is even more evident in the second person narrative of Celeste. Celeste had a good friend in Vinny because she made her feel like who she wanted to be. Or so she thought. But over time, as they grew into their teens there were aspects of Vinny's character that were cruel. Vinny's "tasting game" was one example.  At first Celeste tries to ignore Vinny's cruelty. Celeste states, "When you began to catch glimpses of something different -- like that spoonful of cinnamon, and the smile that went along with it -- you made excuses for her. That's Vinny, you told yourself." But Celeste begins to realize that the Vinny she once knew is gone. Instead of warning Gina about the tasting game, Celeste allows Vinny to hurt Gina by feeding her a spoonful of cinnamon. However, when Vinny tries to get Gina to eat her chapstick, Celeste intervenes and pays the price by being uninvited to her Halloween party. In a last ditch attempt to save this "friendship", Celeste betrays Gina's special secret. When she realizes what she's done she needs time off to figure out how to repair the harm caused. Vinny in effect has become a stranger to her and it's time to say goodbye to that friendship. Vinny is a stranger.

Stead employs several narrators including Bridge, Sherm and a mystery second person narrator. My only criticism of this novel is the use of the second person narrative. This mystery narrator that seemed to have no connection to the characters and the main storyline. The identity of the second person narrator is not revealed until the end of the novel. She refers to characters who are not part of the main story and the reader is left puzzling throughout the novel over the connection between the two narratives. It would seem the purpose of the second person narrator was to create a big reveal at the end of the novel but this easily could have been accomplished without such a device.This is not to say the narrative was not needed - just that it seemed ineffective as a device to create a reveal at the end of the novel.

An appealing aspect of this novel was the adult characters. It's rare to find a family like Bridge's where the parents are accomplished, hard working, caring and still married. This was refreshing.

Overall Goodbye Stranger was a good well written novel about middle school life, realistic in its presentation with authentic, varied characters.

Book Details:

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
New York: Wendy Lamb Books     2015
289 pp.

1 comment:

LoonTracker said...

This is definitely my favorite review of this book, and I feel as if I have read dozens!