Sarah Dessen's latest offering, What Happened to Goodbye, fails not so much because it's an objectively worse book than any of her previous nine novels, but because it never emerges from their shadows. Dessen's made a career out of revealing the interior lives of teenage girls, surrounding them with "quirky" friends or co-workers and one sweet and long-suffering boy of the type that's never been seen in a high school, placing her characters in schools and towns familiar to her long-time readers. Dessen doesn't shy from family drama or classic moments of teenage self-doubt or introspection, but What Happened to Goodbye reads like a novel written from a mold. While the book provides a comforting read it's not one that's comparable with Dessen's earlier efforts for the simple reason that it tries too hard to reimagine what those books had.
Dessen here follows Mclean Sweet, the daughter of a former restauranteur and the wife who left him for the basketball coach of the family's favorite university team. Doing her all to avoid her mother and her new family (which includes two new half-siblings), Mclean moves across the country with her father,Gus, spending a few months in town after town as he attempts to resuscitate failing restaurants bought by his friend Charles's company. In each town Mclean renames and remakes herself, becoming "Liz" or "Eliza" or whatever iterations her middle name offers; but in her latest move, she is stymied in her efforts at self-recreation and becomes, again, simply "Mclean."
The quirky characters are in full force here, from the staff of Luna Blu, the restaurant Gus has been brought in to work on, who on paper have no positive qualities but in life are what draw people to eat there, to the friends Mclean finds herself collecting, almost against her will, before she's decided which version of herself she'll be in this new town. Her parents' divorce having proven, to Mclean, that relationships can't last and will only hurt her in the end, she's been in the habit of forming only the surface-level friendships that gather her friends on Dessen's reimagined facebook, Ume.com, but no one she regrets leaving behind as she slips out of town after town.
With the family issues and Mclean's reaction to her parents' divorce and her mother's new life, Dessen is her usual self, confident in envisioning the impact the (very public) break-up of Mclean's life had on her. But that's the problem, maybe; Dessen is simply revisiting her usual territory of broken or breaking families, of teen girls meeting that first boy who will at end help them through their often hidden feelings about their families. What Happened to Goodbye often reads as though Dessen did nothing more than trudge through her old steps as she wrote it.
Dessen is a skilled writer of young adult, and she has undeniable talent when it comes to the interior lives of girls in high school. It's not a talent that she's growing, however, and her earlier books read as fresher than this one because she hadn't yet fallen into the mold that now defines her books. Dessen's last few offerings read as though they might have all been built on the same plot; simply edit character names and quirks and the specifics of family and you have, at heart, a string of books about teenage girls finding themselves in markedly similar ways. What Happened to Goodbye may be a comforting read, but it's not one that will stand time as well as Dessen's earlier novels, particularly That Summer and Someone Like You.