Book review: Goodbye Stranger, by Rebecca Stead

Disclosure: This review is based upon a bound, finished copy provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.

At first impression, Goodbye Stranger is a sweet contemporary middle grade novel about friendship, growing up, coming into your body, and becoming your own person. But that’s a superficial and dismissive assessment of this novel, which is actually a bit more complicated than that — and it makes for a great read for young readers as well as those at the upper end of the middle grade range. I’d be highly surprised if it doesn’t pick up at least a few awards, because it’s a rather delightful book, but the coziness of it comes with a sharp edge that makes it an incisive addition to the literary canon.

This is not a straightforward narrative. In fact, Goodbye Stranger is told from three different perspectives, and the connections between them takes time to unfold, in a slow and elegant reveal. Our main character is seventh grader Bridge Barsamian, who was in a devastating accident as a child and has wondered why she survived ever since, pondering whether she was saved and put back on Earth for a reason. Another character, Sherm Russo, narrates his own storyline through a series of letters written to his absent grandfather, who has abandoned his grandmother to pursue a relationship with another woman. A third, anonymous narrator speaks in the third person about a catastrophic series of events on Valentine’s Day, pondering whether she’ll be able to recover from — and atone for — betrayal and heartbreak.

All of these stories pull together more and more tightly over the course of the novel, until they show themselves to each other in the finale. At times, the book feels a little too on the nose, a little forced, but I’m willing to give it a bit of leeway because the narrative structure is highly dynamic, and Stead’s writing style is flexible and engaging.

Goodbye Stranger includes considerable racial diversity, which reflects reality in New York City, where the book is set. In the context of the push for more diverse representation, though, it almost feels a bit servicey — like it’s trying a bit too earnestly to impress readers — but at the same time, it’s not an inaccurate depiction of New York. Goodbye Stranger is caught in the awkward trap of being at the leading edge of a social arc of change, responsible both for increasing diversity and creating examples of how to do it while also telling stories. In five to ten years, when diversity is unremarkable, I suspect the book won’t feel nearly as stiff, because it will be part of a larger literary landscape, one in which diversity is natural rather than forced.

More difficult is the issuey side of the storytelling, in the form of a somewhat moralistic cautionary tale about a student who snaps a series of increasingly racy (for middle school, at any rate) selfies and sends them to a friend-turned-something-else-maybe-boyfriend. When a photo makes it out to the rest of the school, she’s subjected to endless shaming and attacks, and even her own friends don’t realize how bad it gets — not least because one of them is busy scolding her for doing it in the first place, putting her new ‘feminist’ precepts into place by insisting that she’s devaluing her own body.

The introduction of one of the characters to feminism and social justice is an interesting inclusion, as it’s fascinating to watch her attitudes and approach to the world shift as she interacts with movements she barely knew or understood before. The way she relates to her friends as a result of her growing understanding is also remarkably true to life and sometimes painful as she becomes a bit of an evangelist without much nuance, at times frustrating and alienating her friends even as they also feel a little jealous of her relationship with her newfound mentor and friends — one example of how the girls are starting to grow into themselves and separate as individual personalities and people after pledging to remain friends forever and ever.

Middle school is a difficult time. It’s especially difficult for young women, who are growing up and being betrayed by their bodies and dealing with the shifts that happen as their friends are pulled in different directions, picking up new interests and meeting different people. Each of the girls of Goodbye Stranger holds and carries her own secrets and this becomes a burden that pushes and pulls at their friendship — a childhood pledge to never fight, for example, becomes difficult to live up to in a real world where the characters deal with the events of growing up.

The feeling of slowly separating — or cementing — friendships can feel very lonely, unsurprisingly, but it can also feel like no one else is experiencing it in the context of a social web filled with constant maneuvering and delicate dances deliberately calculated to be as cruel as possible. Books like Goodbye Stranger serve as a notice to readers that they aren’t alone, that their experiences are far more common than they realise, and that they will come out intact on the other side; perhaps with deeper connections to old friends, maybe with new relationships with entirely new and delightful people, undoubtedly with new interests and passions. Middle school in some ways is the moment where you split from being a child shaped by the people around you to making decisions for yourself, a moment both terrifying and giddy, and a ‘we’ve all been there’ told well is an immensely valuable thing.