Can a text message destroy your life?
Carver Briggs never thought a simple text would cause a fatal crash, killing his three best friends, Mars, Eli, and Blake. Now Carver can’t stop blaming himself for the accident and even worse, there could be a criminal investigation into the deaths.
Then Blake’s grandmother asks Carver to remember her grandson with a ‘goodbye day’ together. Carver has his misgivings, but he starts to help the families of his lost friends grieve with their own memorial days, along with Eli’s bereaved girlfriend Jesmyn. But not everyone is willing to forgive. Carver’s own despair and guilt threatens to pull him under into panic and anxiety as he faces punishment for his terrible mistake. Can the goodbye days really help?
When I read a contemporary YA novel, I usually go into it with mild expectations because contemporary is such a broad category, and each book can be completely different from the next. If anyone follows me on Twitter or Goodreads, you probably saw me freakout over Jeff Zentner's debut novel The Serpent King. It was set near my hometown in Tennessee (with a few mentions of my hometown, no less), and it was hopeful, tragic, atmospheric, and I loved every minute of it. It also made me cry, which is a feat for any book to accomplish. It easily became one of my favorite contemporary YA novels of all time.
So when Stefani of Caught Read Handed sent out a general invitation to join an ARC tour for Zentner's next book, Goodbye Days, on her Twitter (thank you Stefani!!!), I jumped at the chance to read it. Like TSK, Goodbye Days is set in Tennessee and sounded even more tragic. Now knowing the quality of Zenter's writing and storytelling abilities, I knew that even if it didn't reach instant-favorite level, it would still be a good read.
But Zentner delivered again. I honestly don't know which book of his two I prefer more. Goodbye Days didn't make me cry, though it came close, and it book spoke to me in a different way than TSK. The Serpent King had a distinct, almost claustrophobic atmosphere made up of small-town life, the weight of hopes and dreams, the potential to live beyond the life we are born into, and senseless loss. All of those factors made the otherwise completely realistic story feel ethereal at times.
Goodbye Days differs in that there is no hazy distance between you and the stark reality of the tragedy in the book. The reality of heavy emotions starts on page one and never lets up. While grief and loss fill each chapter, Zentner also skillfully layers in laughter and hope. As we follow Carver through his coping, and not coping, with the loss of his best friends, we get to see flashbacks of him with the boys. Those moments were electric and alive, and even more than that, they were raw and mesmerizing in their simplicity and joy.
Just like in The Serpent King, Zentner's writing feels effortless but makes an impact. I flagged several lines in the text, many feeling like gut punches. The dialogue is on-point, and I loved how he integrated the setting of Nashville into the story. One of my favorite things about this book is how well Zentner represents what grief, anxiety, and panic attacks can feel like. Some of Carver's thoughts felt like they were pulled out of my own head, and his experience with panic attacks mirrored my own. Zentner also shows that getting professional help for mental issues can be helpful and useful, not stupid and pointless like a lot of YA books posit, and I'm glad Zentner included this purely positive representation.
When it came to the characters, I felt like I could relate to almost every one of them in some way or another. I highly identified with Carver and his struggles with mental health in the face of grief. All of the main characters and many of the side characters felt fully formed. The only exception for me was Jesmyn because she just didn't stick with me the way all the others did. Carver was definitely the closest to my heart, but my favorite character was his sister, Georgia. Some of her lines were laugh-out-loud worthy, and I loved her fierce love for her family and her confidence and wisdom. She is who I wish I was back when I was in college.
The only slight drawback of the book was a subplot revolving around Carver and Jesmyn. It wasn't bad, I just didn't feel that it fit perfectly into the story, and the resolution of it wasn't as satisfying as the emotional journey Carver experiences with the other characters and with himself. But due to the many, many wonderful lines and feelings-inducing scenes, this was just a blip in an overall amazing story.
My words do barely any justice in describing the experience of reading Goodbye Days. I can't express how much this book made me feel, and I'm not a re-reader, but I'll be picking this up again and again because it is that wonderful. Goodbye Days is an experience unto itself, and despite it being all about tragedy and grief, the ultimate feeling of hope and recovery make every potential tear worth it.