Since the tone of the story is dictated by its narrator—Mclean Sweet—it's no wonder that the tone in this book is somewhat jaded. Even though she's going through an exciting time in her life—it's her senior year of high school and she's got college shenanigans and frat parties to look forward to—Mclean is preoccupied and kind of pessimistic. She doesn't even seem particularly excited by the prospect of making new friends since she'll just abandon them eventually:
In truth, since my parents' split, I hadn't had much faith in relationships and even less of an inclination to start any lasting ones of my own. (2.92)
By getting Mclean's tone and perspective on things, we really get to see the emotions that she hides from other characters—namely the hurt and anger that she feels from her parents' divorce. It helps us appreciate just how hard the past few years have been on her, and how brave she is as she begins to trust other people again
This is definitely the kind of book that's geared toward teenagers—the angstier the better, right? (And yes, we know angstier isn't a word, but whatever.) Mclean is the human definition of struggle as she makes her way through her high school years, unable to form serious friendships and constantly trying to figure out who she is. And Dave Wade, dreamboat next door, is in the same position—he's trying to figure out what it's like to be young and wild and free after spending most of his time in a lab or with his nose stuck inside a book.
With the help of their friends, the teenagers in What Happened to Goodbye embark on journeys of self-discovery—complete with the rumor mill, parental pressure, and plenty of other teenage drama along the way.
You can cut the tension in What Happened to Goodbye with a knife—especially when it comes to Mclean and her mom. Ever since Mclean's parents divorced, things have been pretty awkward and rough, and the book deals with a lot of Mclean's feelings of betrayal, and how she comes to redefine her relationship with her mom. Heck—we wouldn't even have a book if Mclean's mom hadn't gone and cheated on her dad three years ago. And when family drama is a catalyst for the plot, it's a safe bet that the book you're reading falls into the, well, family drama genre.
The title—What Happened to Goodbye—refers to a message that Mclean gets through her Ume.com account at the beginning of the novel. One of her friends from the last town she lived in is asking her why she just moved without saying goodbye first:
I scrolled down to my comment section, scanning the handful of new ones:
Girl we missed you already! The last board meeting sucked without you.
Beth, I heard from Misty you moved. Awful short notice, hope you are ok. Call me!
What happened to goodbye? (2.86-87)
This sets the stage for the entire book, and the problems that Mclean and her dad have with connecting to other people since the divorce. Mclean has a hard time getting close enough to people to even want to say goodbye to them, but in her time at Lakeview, we see her start to heal from the wounds of her parents' divorce. She begins making real friends—you know, the kind that she would say goodbye to if she had to leave again.
The ending of What Happened to Goodbye wraps things up pretty nicely for the reader, letting us know that Mclean ends up staying in Lakeview after all (yay) and graduating with her friends. It gives us a brief summary of what she's doing now, which includes working at the restaurant and dating Dave:
For once, I was really part of a class, able to partake in rituals like senior skip day and yearbook distribution, my time at a school ending when everyone else's did. I studied for finals with Dave on his living room couch, him reading up on advanced physics, while I struggled with trigonometry. Then, while he worked, I pulled cram sessions at FrayBake with Heather, Riley, and Ellis, powered all around by Procrastinator's Specials he made personally. (18.33)
The last image of the novel is of Mclean getting a snapshot from Dave on her phone; in it, he's finally made it to Texas:
There were no words, just a picture. I clicked it, watching as it filled up the screen. The shot was four hands, two with circle tattoos, all wearing Gerts. Behind them, blue sky and a sign: WELCOME TO TEXAS. (18.51)
His picture of Texas sums up everything about the journey that he and Mclean have gone on to discover themselves—they've finally made it and are secure in knowing who they are and what they want to do with their lives.
What Happened to Goodbye takes place in a town that may be familiar to discerning readers of Sarah Dessen's other books. Mclean and her dad move to Lakeview, a fictional town based on Chapel Hill that makes an appearance in many of Dessen's novels.
Lakeview is a fine, comfortable little suburb where many of the residents have lived for their whole lives. People like Dave and Opal grew up there… and never left. As Opal explains her attachment to Luna Blu and Lakeview:
"I started in high school. It was my first real job." She picked up the milk crate, moving it to the opposite wall, then folded the chairs, one by one. "Eventually I left for college, but even then I came back and waited tables in the summers. Once I graduated, I planned to get a full-time job with my double degree in dance and art history, but it didn't exactly work out." (3.152)
At first Mclean thinks that Lakeview is just like every other town she's ever lived in—after all, even the high school looks the same as other schools she's attended—but she soon finds that what makes the town of Lakeview special isn't the buildings, or the local attractions. No, it's the people who live there that make it special—it's the community that brings life to the town. And since this book is, in many ways, about coming home, it's the perfect place for Mclean's journey to unfold in.
Break away from
what you've known
You are not a lone
We can build
a brand new home
You are not alone
- Ben Lee, "Families Cheating at Board Games"
The epigraph of What Happened to Goodbye is all about breaking away and building a new home, which is especially relevant to Mclean because she's always moving from place to place with her dad. In most of these places, they never really settle in and make it a home—in fact, Mclean's convinced that she doesn't even have a home anymore following her parents' nasty divorce. She thinks she'll be a drifter forever.
But when she lands in Lakeview, she discovers that you can have second chances. While there, she and her dad finally manage to build themselves a new home—no matter how makeshift—and Mclean knows for the first time in a long time that she isn't alone.
As always, Sarah Dessen's writing is crisp, simple, and easy-to-read, which makes What Happened to Goodbye a pretty straightforward read for teenage readers. The subject matter, however, makes the book a little bit tougher—we're dealing with divorce, the search for identity, and a whole lot of inner turmoil from Mclean. This stuff is pretty relatable, though, so it never gets too hard to make your way through the pages of this book.
The writing style of What Happened to Goodbye is extremely straightforward, but also stark and honest. Mclean doesn't have many close friends that she can talk to, so it makes sense that the book would read like a running monologue of everything that happens to her—and how she feels about it. She describes every detail, giving the reader deep insights into both her day-to-day activities and her psyche as things happen. For example, we get to know exactly how she feels when her mom calls:
Then when he let go and went down the hallway to his room, I pushed out the door and went there. I wanted to break something, or scream, but none of these was really an option in this neighborhood at four on a Wednesday. (10.79)
Ultimately, thanks to the confessional style of the writing, we get to see everything that happens. Nothing is spared for the sake of decency or to keep Mclean's embarrassment at bay—so though we may not be her friends when the book opens, we certainly feel like we are by the end.
Putting together a model of the entire town of Lakeview is a pretty daunting task—but not nearly as daunting as Mclean's task of letting her guard down and getting close to other people. The model town (and it's slow progress) is a symbol of Mclean's isolation and how she gradually begins to open up to other people and form roots in Lakeview. At the beginning of the book, there's only one little house on the table, all alone like our sad protagonist:
Together, we looked down at the tiny house, the sole thing on this vast, flat surface. Like the only person living on the moon. It could be either lonely or peaceful, depending on how you looked at it. (6.88)
Yup—they might as well be talking about Mclean. But with the help of some friends, our main girl starts to grow a community around herself and discovers that she likes being around other people and trusting them. As the model town grows and grows, so do Mclean's personal connections to the town of Lakeview. And in the end, when everything is finished, she sees that Dave and Deb have included touches that she didn't even consider—all the tiny model people:
"Other people, however," she continued, clearing her throat, "feel that by organizing the people, we are removing the life force from the entire endeavor. Instead, they think that we should just arrange the figures in a more random way, as that mirrors the way the world actually is, which is what the model is supposed to be all about." (16.143)
A model of the town and community isn't complete without people, just like Mclean's life isn't complete without all the people she's come to love. And when she notices that Dave has added figures representing memories he's made with her, well, we know for certain Mclean's not standing by herself anymore.
When Mclean thinks of the beach, she doesn't think of her mom's new fancy beach house that comes with all the bells and whistles—she thinks of this old decrepit motel, the Poseidon, that they used to go to when she was a kid:
This was my mother as I liked to remember her, hair in a sloppy ponytail, wearing cheap sunglasses and smelling of sunscreen and salt. She read terrible romance novels during the day (her guiltiest of pleasures), and at night, sat with me on the rickety chairs outside our room and pointed out constellations. (4.92)
For Mclean, the Poseidon represents a moment frozen in time—a time when her parents were still happy together and their family was complete. All the other places, like her hometown, have been tainted by her parents' divorce, but she can still have fond memories of the Poseidon. When she runs away from her mom's beach house, it's the only place she can think of to go to because it's the closest to going "home" to her past:
"I just felt lost all of a sudden. This was the only place that was familiar."
"This place?" my dad said, glancing around the room.
"We had a lot of good times here," my mom told him. "It was where we always stayed when we took road trips to the beach." (16.72-74)
Yup—the motel definitely represents the good old days for Mclean, and it seems like it does for her mom too. And its name—Poseidon—references the god of water from Greek mythology. But according to legend, Poseidon didn't just watch over all things water—he also had a bit of a temper. So though the Poseidon (the motel) brings a sense of calm to Mclean, we also know it's not a place she can stay—it can't heal what ails her.
In the end, Mclean realizes that she can't cling to the past because time marches on. Even though she wants to stay in the Poseidon by herself, she has to leave and figure out what to do next with her life—she has to dive into her life as it flows forward if she's got any hope of staying afloat and finding happiness.
Whenever Mclean enters a new town, she creates a new identity and a new online account to go with it:
I liked this feeling so much that, when we moved to Petree, our next place, it took it further, calling myself Lizbet and taking up with the drama mamas and dancers […]
The strangest thing about all of this was that, before, in my old life, I hadn't been any of these things: not a student leader or an actress or an athlete. There, I was just average, normal, unremarkable. Just Mclean. (1.30-31)
These profiles don't represent the real Mclean—they're all fronts for the persona she's trying to create. She doesn't feel safe being herself, so she just creates a whole new personality with a name and interests to match.
All of these accounts represent how confused Mclean is about her identity—she doesn't really know how to be herself anymore. She tells us:
In my head, it went off in a million directions—I'm not that girl anymore. I'm not sure who I am—each of them only leading to more complications and explanations. (13.65)
In Lakeview though, Mclean starts to learn how to be comfortable in her own skin without creating a different personality. She makes friends for real reasons and even goes by her real name. It's not much, but it's a start. And when her Lakeview crew discovers her laundry list of fake identities, though Mclean panics, they assure her they love her for who she is—and for the first time in a long time, Mclean believes it.
Although a used container of thyme might seem like a bizarre gift to give to someone, Mclean totally sees it for what it is—a sweet gesture and an invitation to stay from Dave:
It was a small plastic container of thyme, already opened, but more than half full. JUST IN CASE YOU DECIDE TO STICK AROUND, the note said in messy, slanted writing. WE HAD THREE OF THESE. (8.332)
Mclean and her dad always live in these empty houses without spices or any frills because they are constantly expecting to pick up and move again—sadly, this keeps their houses from ever feeling like homes. But in giving her the container of thyme, Dave is telling her that he wants her to stay here—that Lakeview can be her new home, if she wants it to be—and when he does, he lets her know that he understands how hard moving around all the time is for her too.
The entirety of What Happened to Goodbye is told from Mclean Sweet's perspective, which makes sense—after all, this is her story. More than that though, because Mclean is a pretty closed-off person who prides herself on not making strong attachments when she moves to a new place, it's super helpful for the reader to get her innermost thoughts as events occur—she's certainly not going to share her feelings out loud with other characters.
Through Mclean's perspective, we get to see her feelings on getting close to other people, her ambivalence toward her mother, and even her fear of leaving her father all by himself. It's tricky emotional terrain at times, but Mclean recounts it clearly and honestly to readers as she goes.
The book opens and we meet Mclean and her dad, who are constantly on the road thanks to his job as a restaurant consultant. He's called in to fix up restaurants and Mclean moves with him from town to town for his job—mostly because she doesn't want to stay with her mom after their nasty divorce. She doesn't make too many attachments, and is resolved to keep her distance from other people and not get too close when they land in their latest town, Lakeview.
Despite Mclean's best efforts, she starts putting down roots in Lakeview. She makes some friends, and even starts working on the community project at the restaurant where her dad works, Luna Blu.
But being real comes with its own challenges, and she starts feeling vulnerable when she realizes that she likes the boy next door—and when she is honest with her mom about her feelings of anger and resentment, things get choppy in their relationship too. When she finds out that her dad has gotten a new job in Hawaii and that her mom wants her to spend spring break at her new beach house, things just get messier and messier for our main girl.
When Mclean gets to the beach house, she's all sorts of confused—(1) she has to hang out with her mom for a long period of time, and (2) she doesn't want to move to Hawaii with her dad. She wants to stay in Lakeview super badly, then she overhears her mom on the phone and assumes that her she doesn't even want her here, so she ends up running away to the Poseidon, a ramshackle motel that they used to stay in when she was a kid.
Poor Mclean—she feels completely adrift in the world, and all by herself.
Mclean ends up calling Dave at 2:00AM, who tells her parents where she is. They come and finally realize that the divorce has had a much bigger impact on Mclean than they thought, and they apologize for uprooting her and making her teenage years so difficult and lonely. Mclean goes back to Lakeview to finish out the next few weeks before moving back to her hometown with her mom. She's not happy about it, but she's at least resolved to maintain friendships with the people she's met in Lakeview.
At the last minute, Mclean's mom decides that she can't uproot her daughter once again and agrees to let her stay in Lakeview with Opal. Yay—Mclean finally gets to stay put for once, and she ends up graduating with the rest of her friends and participating in all the senior class shenanigans. She even starts working at Opal's new restaurant and develops a romantic relationship with Dave. In other words, as the book ends, everything's finally coming up roses.