Mostly, we’re following the stories of Bridge and her close friends Em and Tab, told by an attractively witty authorial voice, convincingly at home in Grades Seven and Eight in New York City. The girls have been inseparable for years, bound together by a ‘no fighting’ rule, which they swore to obey over a Twinkie that they subsequently divided and ate. Secondly, we are overhearing, it seems, fragments of an anxious story of another teenager, talking to herself rather than to us (“You check your phone…You wonder if….”). She is struggling to move on from friendships which have tangled into pain. A third narrative is told through some unsent messages written by Bridge’s classmate, Sherm Russo, to his grandfather, Nonno Gio. Inexplicably, after a long and deeply contented marriage, Nonno has suddenly walked away from his wife and his loving family.
The source of the title of Goodbye Stranger, first published in both the States and the UK in 2015, is found in one of Sherm’s messages. Feeling abandoned by his grandfather and refusing to send his replies to Nonno’s texts, Sherm still longs to talk with him as he has done all his life, especially as he currently has confusions of his own. His deepening friendship with Bridge is taking him places he’s never been before, places he’s not sure he wants to go. Sherm remembers his father saying to Nonno before he left, ‘…you’ve turned into a stranger’. As Sherm tries to understand his emerging feelings for Bridge, he writes, ‘I feel like a stranger to myself too….I guess my question is: is the new you the stranger? Or is the stranger the person you leave behind?’
That’s the question for Bridge, for Em, for Tab, for Sherm, for the talker-to-herself, each with a narrative of transition to something new where they may need to say goodbye to ‘the person you leave behind’. For much of the time, the novel reads like a tale of everyday early teenage life with its entertaining crises and melodramas: the foolish sending of revealing selfies, online malice, who’s-in and who’s-out with the popular crowd, working together in the Theatre Tech Crew behind the scenes at the annual talent show, the jealousies and rituals of Valentine’s Day, the Cafeteria gossip and so on. Beneath all of that, as in real-school-life, there are more nuanced experiences and emotions. We are closest to Bridge who, when she was eight, roller-skated under the wheels of Broadway traffic; she escaped with her life, but spent the next year in and out of hospital. She’s still dealing with the after-effects to both mind and body. Maybe because of that episode, she is acutely reflective – even confidently quirky; for example, she happily wears a headband surmounted by cat-ears every day in school, bucking the trend of Grade 7 fashion. Em is a star of the soccer team and ahead of the others in moving into her adult body – and into relationships with boys; as she bids her old body goodbye, she gets a couple of decisions badly wrong. Tab is much influenced by Ms. Berman, a feminist who runs the Human Rights Club (‘Call me Ms Berperson’). Tab is at the exciting if doctrinaire stage of embracing any idealistic teenage commitment.
As for the un-named protagonist, some readers, including myself, may find this the least satisfying element of an otherwise excellent novel. Witholding information from a reader can seem irritatingly contrived, though it could be argued here that we are listening-in to the anxious mind of the character – so why should she use her own name? Some readers may indeed enjoy the guessing game – you can just about infer the writer’s identity since there is a limited cast of characters, so it’s almost certainly got to be X. Even so, this novel is a tour de force in its management of several elements within a comic narrative without sacrificing subtlety of characterisation. Rebecca Stead has conjured up the attractions of an early teenage school-based story and, at the same time, explored the maelstrom of excitements and pain of shifting early adolescence.