CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 27. . . .March 16, 2018
The Goodbye Girls.
Halifax, NS: Nimbus, April, 2018.
243 pp., trade pbk., $15.95.
Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.
Review by Kris Rothstein.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
“Why did I do it?”
Her eyes darken to an inky black. I’m pretty sure she wants to rip my face off.
“You stole my boyfriend,” she says through clenched teeth.
I knew it! “No I didn’t!“
“You sat back and watched me be all in love with him.” She glares at me and shakes her head. “Bet you loved every minute of it.”
“Not only that,” she says.” You know I spent two hundred bucks on a watch for him for Christmas. You even let me wear your sweater on my last ever date with him. You were having a grand ol’ time, weren’t you?”
“I didn’t let you wear it. You took it!”
“And all along you knew he was going to break up with me! You knew how I felt about him, and you let me go on living in some...some dream world!
Déjà vu. It’s basically what Willa said to me when she found out I knew about my mom and her dad. She was right. They both are, as much as it stings.
Lizzie, 16, lives with her mom and her mean big sister, Trish, in Halifax. Lizzie desperately wants to attend a band trip to New York City with her best friend Willa, but the family just doesn’t have the money. Too proud to accept charity, Lizzie comes up with novel plan. She and Willa start a business to help the couples at their school break up with each other. She’s seen other students do whatever they can to avoid the awkwardness of breaking bad news and surmises that surely all these students would welcome an anonymous, easy and potentially less hurtful way to get dumped. She and Willa become The Goodbye Girls, offering customized gift baskets to break the bad news and cushion the blow when romance ends. After a few hurdles, the business goes gangbusters and the orders and money flow in.
It might have been more interesting if The Goodbye Girls had dealt with a little bit more resistance in setting up their business. There would have been room for some hi-jinks and some bonding. Instead, it is pretty easy. Willa’s brother Sean is drafted (using bribes) into driving them around (hilariously, he later says he assumed they were selling drugs). The girls feel bad for the dumpees but figure that at least they get some chocolate, flowers or a DVD out of the deal. It is not until a saboteur emerges that things get tough. At this point, the girls have lost their enthusiasm for capitalizing on heartbreak and don’t even want to keep the business going, but they have to figure out who is trying to give them a bad reputation. Solving this mystery is one of the main aspects of the plot, and it is in the role of minor detective that Lizzie flourishes.
While this is a pretty gentle teen story about growing up, I do admire that Harrington really took Lizzie’s challenges to the extreme. The boy she likes is her sister’s boyfriend. Her sister is a cold, heartless villain. The mystery man her mom starts to date turns out to be Willa’s dad. Some of these plot twists are a little contrived, but they do create drama.
Lizzie is a nice girl, a normal girl, a good girl. She does her homework, is trusted by her mother, doesn’t challenge social conventions, keeps out of trouble and stays under the radar. It is difficult to present her as a strong and complex heroine as she is, frankly, a little bland. On the other hand, she is also an everygirl, and this should make it easy for many readers to relate to her. One of the main deficiencies of the book is that is takes a long time for Lizzie to develop at all, and that when she does, it feels like the very very beginning of the process. Suddenly, at the end of the novel, she makes a number of strange and surprising choices. She does actually have some definite personality traits, but these go uninvestigated. Why is Lizzie too proud to accept help? What are her desires? Why does she like Garrett, her sister’s boyfriend? What is she afraid of? Why is she willing to punish herself and to give up on the things she thought she wanted? These are all questions for possible discussion.
The strength of The Goodbye Girls is really its portrayal of friendship. This is a true gal pal story where the two main characters feel like real best friends. Willa and Lizzie are the quintessential duo, the comfortable, supportive best friends who do everything together and constitute each other’s worlds. Much of the story details their escapades, including regular daily routine dialogue as well as their inventive business plan and its execution. The girls are both dealing with single parent families. Lizzie’s father has been dead for many years while Willa’s parents are newly-separated. They try to figure out what makes relationships work and why they fail. The main crisis of the book is not the band trip or the sabotage of the breakup business, but the fracture in the girls’ relationship when Lizzie is forced to keep the relationship between her mother and Willa’s father a secret from Willa.
The main point of tension in the novel is Lizzie’s relationship with Trish. Sibling rivalry is a topic many teens can relate to, and so it is always ripe material to be mined. Trish is older and perceives Lizzie as the golden child who can do no wrong. In her anger, she completely shuts Lizzie out and is pointedly cruel to her. This escalates when she sees that her ex-boyfriend is interested in Lizzie. It is not surprise that she turns out to be the saboteur. What is surprising, though, is that a girl could be this mean to her sister without better reasons. Trish feels neglected and under-appreciated, but this is not enough of an explanation for her vile behavior. When Lizzie confronts her for an explanation, she further states that she doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her and hates all the people she pretends to be friends with. This is extreme behavior, and the character ends up being less interesting than if her reactions were more nuanced or if she seemed to have any regrets. Lizzie doesn’t forgive Trish, but she is able to experience empathy and see how different the world looks from Trish’s perspective. This is part of the reason why she comes clean about The Goodbye Girls when she gets in trouble at school. But, because she allows Trish off the hook, it is unclear what she has really learned about personal responsibility.
Harrington missed an opportunity to shed some light on teen romances and high school relationships in general. Without being moralizing or heavy handed, she could have analyzed the psychology of relationships in the school. Are there really that many people getting together breaking up all the time? Is there something different about their school that makes this remarkable? Is this just the case everywhere? The changing (or not) nature of teen romance seems like an interesting topic which could have been considered.
Too many Canadian children’s novels use historical settings and worthy topics to craft well-meaning but essentially dull tales. To reach a larger audience, it is often more effective to create compelling contemporary settings, characters and scenarios, and work some thoughtful material into a page-turner. Harrington deserves applause for venturing into this commercial market even though The Goodbye Girls doesn’t quite have the intensity, great pacing or character development needed to really stand out. While the book could have been more thoughtful and more fun, it is still a good read with likeable characters.
Kris Rothstein is a children’s book agent, editor and cultural critic in Vancouver, BC.
© CM Association
University of Manitoba
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