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Review: What Happened to Goodbye

What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen. Viking, an imprint of Penguin. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from ALA Midwinter.

The Plot: Mclean has spent the last two years at four different high schools. At each one, she tries out a different personality: different name, different interests, different clothes.  The most recent move lands her at Lakeview in her senior year and she’s not sure who she wants to be this time around. She’s been the cheerleader, the drama girl, the super involved student government member. She knows who she doesn’t want to be: Mclean, the girl whose parents’ divorce was very public, whose mother betrayed her father, who was talked about behind her back. For two years she’s kept her past, her self, her mother, at arm’s length — and also kept her present a comfortable distance, too, so that “goodbyes” are never said as she leaves one school for another. Mclean can only run from herself for so long.

The Good: For some people, like Alyssa at where I get my hair done, all they need to know is “a new Sarah Dessen? She has a new book out?”  Yes! Yes, she does.

While What Happened to Goodbye has a romance in it, this is not a romance. Rather, it is about a girl whose life fractured, whose sense of self fractured, and who spent two years hiding from what had happened by trying on and discarding new personas. Now, Mclean is at a time and a place, both physically and emotionally, where she can put those pieces together and become herself.

What happened a few years back that shattered Mclean’s life? Her parents, Gus and Kate Sweet, were college sweethearts who owned a restaurant. Gus Sweet was a huge basketball fan, especially for this college team; the Sweets stayed in that same town. Gus worked the restaurant, Kate did the books, Mclean (named after her father’s favorite coach) played there growing up. Money was tight but they were all happy. Then the local college got a new coach, Peter Hamilton, who came to dinner at Gus and Kate’s restaurant. Long story short; Kate and Peter had an affair, Kate and Gus got divorced, Kate and Peter got married, Kate became Katherine, wife of the famous coach, living in a big house with a housekeeper and soon baby twins completed the picture. Kate’s life was now fairy tale perfect, and she expected Mclean to seamlessly move into that big old house with a stepfather and ignore the fifteen years that had come before. Mclean, seeing her father abandoned and crushed (and her family the target of gossip and headlines), said no way; when her father got a job evaluating and saving (or ending) failing restaurants, Mclean went with him.

What Happened to Goodbye has exactly what one wants and needs from a Dessen book: Mclean finds herself; along the way she meets some true friends and has to learn just what friendship means — which means learning how to say goodbye instead of leaving and changing names. The setting — here, the failing restaurant called the Luna Blu and it’s cast of employees — is one that is so fully created the reader thinks they’ve been to that restaurant even if the food and service needs a little work. The romance is just the right touch, to say that it’s part of Mclean’s life and it impacts her but it’s not the only thing in her life and it isn’t the sole reason she finally rediscovers her self.

The part of What Happened to Goodbye that captivates me is not all that — though, rest assured, those are things that I enjoyed. What captivates me is Kate, the mother, and how Mclean views both her parents and how the reader views those parents. I was as angry as Mclean at her mother’s betrayal — cheating on her father, getting pregnant, leaving him. Her father loses everything: wife. home. restaurant. Even his love of basketball is gone, because the coach for “his” team is the man who took his wife. Gus Sweet now lives a semi-nomadic existence of living in rental homes, with all his possessions fitting in a small U-haul. Who wouldn’t get mad?

And yet. Maybe it’s because I’m an adult reader, more of age with Kate than Mclean. Maybe it’s because I picked up on the subtle clues that Dessen included, even thought it’s Mclean telling the story. Kate and Gus, together for fifteen years, had always been an odd couple. The restaurant was failing long before Hamilton came to town. Gus was a workaholic, with little time for his wife and child outside the restaurant/basketball world he loved. While Mclean sees the situation as pretty black and white (Mom = left = controlling & bad, Dad = abandoned = easygoing & good), she shows details that show more dimension to the complicated relationship than that. Don’t worry — Kate’s story doesn’t overly intrude on Mcleans, and wow, Mom needs some sensitivity to Mclean’s feelings.

What else, before the links? OF COURSE there are Easter Eggs. This is Dessen, after all.

Links: From Michelle at Galleysmith, “Mclean has a diverse circle of friends.  Each person is quirky in his or her own way but again not so over the top that interactions and situations are unrealistic.  Mainly created through her unique ability to bring people together who wouldn’t otherwise be so inclined she finds herself constantly surrounded by people who have problems of equal magnitude to her own.”

From Forever Young Adult: “Her dialogue continues to be natural, her characters real, her pauses thoughtful. Her habit of wrapping up each passage with a reflection stood out more to me in this book, and I don’t know if that’s because, as a swimfan, I’m hyper aware of her style, or because she employed that technique more frequently.”

Jinx! Bookshelves of Doom and I post about What Happened to Goodbye on the same day!

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


  1. I also enjoyed the nuances to the parents’ relationship – nothing was quite as black and white as McLean originally thought. I really enjoyed the supporting characters, too, especially Deb. I have to say, though, that the review comment from Forever Young Adult was spot on. I almost gave up on the book after 30 pages because the last-sentence-summation-learning-moment-life-lesson shtick got really old really quickly. I persevered because I’ve been reading Dessen since Keeping the Moon first came out and didn’t want to give up just yet, but it was touch and go there for a bit.

  2. Ditto on the parents’ relationship: I thought the transition from black and white to gray was really well done, and highlighted that hugely important “Oh, wait! My parents are actually people!” coming-of-age moment.