Wow. So, it hasn’t been too long since I completely gushed over Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King. Well, of course when I got my hands on a copy of Goodbye Days, I absolutely loved it as well. Like, seriously. One of those books where you procrastinate the important thing you should be doing (in my case – packing,) because you just cannot stop reading. In this gripping novel by Zentner, we meet teenager Blade living in Nashville, TN. The story opens with Blade attending yet another one of his best friend’s funerals. That enough is a shock, right? Well, unfortunately – it’s the third funeral. Blade’s best friends Mars, Blake, and Eli were killed in a car accident while he was at work. The accident occurred when Blade was sending a text message to the friend driving, Mars. The families of Blade’s friends each respond a bit differently to the tragedy. Some of them are kind, open, and forgiving (at least in trying to console the fault he’s placed on himself,) but others are not so comforting – casting off blame, guilt, and bitterness. Blade’s parents are loving and kind but he doesn’t have very open communication with them. He’s close with his older sister, Georgia but she’s about to head off to college, so he needs to confide in someone. In comes Jesmyn, who was Eli’s girlfriend. She moved to Nashville over the summer, and had met Eli at a music camp. It’s an absolutely awful circumstance to bring two people together, but Jesmyn and Blade both need someone to talk to, someone who can at least slightly get what they’re going through. (It doesn’t help that they go to school with Eli’s twin sister who definitely blames Blade for everything.) So, not only is Blade trying to navigate the pain and guilt of suddenly losing the three closest people in his life all at once – he has a giant black legal cloud hanging over his head. Mars dad decides to pursue a criminal investigation. You’d probably be having panic attacks to if you were him, right? Well, at least Georgia talks some sense into Blade (or forces some on him basically) by taking him to her therapist, so he is at least talking to a professional. In the meantime, Blade spends time with Blake’s grandmother. She is grieving immensely as well. It makes me tear up just thinking about her scenes in the book. Blake’s mom was in no position to have a child, so when Blake was younger his grandma basically rescued him from a bad situation. Blake and his Nana were a team, that’s for sure. Blade tried to help around the house in ways that Blake used to, as if the tasks could help alleviate some of his guilt but also because he truly cared for Nana as well. On one of these days, is when Blake’s Nana proposed the idea of a “goodbye day” where she and Blade would do all the things that she wished she could’ve done with Blake on a last day together. The emotional enormity of such a situation is overwhelming even to consider. It’s just as literally heart-wrenching as it sounds, but it’s still…a journey you want to go on with him. Zentner writes this story in such a beautiful way. You experience Blade’s grief with him, and his stumbles as he tries to navigate life, writer’s block, planning college essays even though he’s devastated that his best friends don’t have those futures to look forward to anymore. This book is absolutely heart-wrenching, but also beautiful, and complicated and doesn’t that all just describe how life is, anyway? It amazes me the stories Zentner has within him to share, and the way they navigate such huge life topics that feel like they can swallow you whole. When you finish reading though, you’re not left in a pit of despair, there’s hope and there’s growth, and there’s the progression of life because you’ve gotta keep going. One of those reminders you can’t hold everything in, and it shows how art and communication, and reaching out, and sometimes just being yourself in whatever emotion you’re feeling – right in that moment, is how you keep taking baby steps forward. This is a heavy story, but a wonderful one – I highly recommend you check it out!
Is it really summer if you don’t read a Sarah Dessen book? YOu may recall that Dessen’s latest Once and For All was on my list of anticipated reads for this year. Now that I’ve read it, I just want to be immersed in the story again. As you know, I’m not a fan of formulaic writing (exactly why you don’t want to get me started on Nicholas Sparks books.) Although some may think that Dessen’s novels are predictable, I on the other hand am pleasantly surprised by her plot twists. There was a gut punch in Once and For All that I wasn’t expecting, (which is sometimes a delicious surprise, but here I was biting my lip, and trying not to cry.) Okay, okay I’m getting ahead of myself. Once and For All chronicles the summer before Louna goes off to college. Her mom owns a wedding planning business with her best friend William. Louna is used to not getting caught up in the “magic” of weddings, constantly seeing the bridezillas or the behind the scenes meltdowns, but you have to wonder how a teenager got so jaded. What happened that makes her question if true love is real? Well, you’ll find out. I love that in this story, we’re introduced to Louna’s best friend Jilly, and the trouble maker ADD son of a client Ambrose – both of their personalities balance out Louna’s serious nature. Ambrose is completely unpredictable, and Jilly is all about “living your best life” (however you do that!) As the story unravels we learn about Louna’s past, maybe what makes her skeptical or hesitant, and we’re also reminded that people aren’t always what they seem to be on the surface. It’s a great summer read, as Dessen finds a way to take us back to her favorite endless possibility beach town, Colby, and even teenagers working hard in the summer have to let lose once in a while. I read this entry on Sarah Dessen’s website where she wrote about some of the things that inspired Once and For All (two babysitters simultaneously planning their own very different weddings.) Then I stumbled across this passage, which not only sums up the heart of Once and For All, but it’s also pretty accurate about life:
As I started to think about all this, I began taking it wider, to the idea of how many “perfect” things we want, or are allowed. I’d had everything I wanted with SAINT ANYTHING: maybe I’d never get that again. Louna, my narrator, has this amazing first love and thinks that’s her only chance, her once and for all. But life goes on, even after those walking into the sunset moments. We can’t always have a perfect day, or a perfect experience. We need to take those great moments, though, and appreciate them. It’s tough for us perfectionists, but it’s true. The best stories, I have learned, often come when things don’t go as you planned. (source)