Goodbye Days- Jeff Zentner
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?
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My Review - 5 Stars
Jeff Zentner can write the hell out of a book. Let's just start there. His first novel The Serpent King was on my Favorite Fiction of 2016 list. I tried to keep my expectations in check for Goodbye Days. He exceeded them. I was truly blown away.
There were four things I especially loved about this novel: the characters, the depiction of grief, the writing, and the setting.
The characters: We see everything from Carver's point of view. We meet his best friends Mars, Eli, and Blake - the Sauce Crew- through Carver's memories but somehow they are as present as if they were living, breathing characters. I felt like I truly understood who they were, even though their deaths permeated each page. Whether Carver was remembering Sauce Crew antics or how he met each one of his friends or even imagining what they'd say to him now, his friends are still a part of him. Sauce Crew was the bulk of his social life and without them around, Carver has only his sister Georgia and Eli's girlfriend Jesmyn. Carver has a hard time opening up to his parents about everything and it was hard to watch this at times because of how much they wanted to be there for him. Yet that's almost an essential part of the teenage experience, is it not?
As Carver and Jesmyn lean more on each other, he has to face some hard truths about his feelings for her. I loved seeing how their friendship developed and how they helped each other grieve, despite the elephant in the room. Jesmyn's backstory and character took the novel in such interesting directions, particularly her synesthesia. The role of creativity in general added an extra depth because they all go to an art academy and each one has their own gift. (Blake's talent was the most unusual and unexpected.) The parents and grandmother of the deceased friends occupy a different space in the novel. They are alternately the angels and devils on Carver's shoulders; some absolving him and some condemning him. I felt their anguish and their despair and their determination to find a new normal. This was important to see, even if it wasn't always comfortable.
The depiction of grief: Watching Carver mourn the loss of his best friends was very moving. He's not spared from his grief in any way. Zentner gives us an inside look at panic attacks, anxiety, and the trauma of grief. I appreciated the emphasis on the benefit of therapy, with medication as needed.
Each family represents a different mourning style and shows the aftereffects of loss. Some grief is healthy, some is not but there's no moralizing or prescription of how it should go. It rang true to life. As readers, we must grapple with the guilt intertwining Carver's grief. Did he play a role in his friends' deaths? Should legal action be taken against him? Not even he can accurately gauge the answers to those questions.
I also look at this through a professional lens. I specialized in child and teen bereavement while I was a hospice social worker. In those cases, we expected the death of a parent or grandparent. Grief is an unwieldy beast, whether or not you know your loved one is dying. Still, there's an extra layer to grief when the loss is unexpected, especially when the person who died is young.I really liked the idea of a "goodbye day" as a tool. I paid keen attention to the interactions with Carver's therapist and it sounded a lot like what I would have said or recommended.
The writing: So many lines knocked me over. From the descriptions to unique turns of phrase, this is a well-crafted novel. The writing isn't static. Each word, each chapter moves us forward and makes us curious about the characters and what might happen next. This could have been a heavy topic- and he doesn't shy away from exploring it- but it's emotionally resonant and there's still a good amount of humor. I laughed out loud way more than I was tempted to tear up. His writing sparkles.
Here are a few of my favorite passages:
"People take shelter under clichés. Language is powerless enough in the face of death. I guess it's asking too much for people to veer from the tried-and-true under such circumstances." p. 17
"There was probably some period when we weren't best friends and inseparable. Days. Maybe weeks, even. But in my memory, from that day on we were as good friends as we'd ever be. It's funny how memory cuts out the boring parts. And that makes it a good story editor." p. 133
"For the most part, you don't hold the people you love in your heart because they rescued you from drowning or pulled you from a burning house. Mostly you hold them in your heart because they save you, in a million quiet and perfect ways, from being alone." p. 190-191
The setting: Zentner said he wanted to write a love letter to Nashville and boy did he. I lived there for 5 years (Full disclosure: I've never met Jeff but he's fun to follow on Twitter) and it is one of my favorite cities. He seamlessly wove in the neighborhoods, parks, and places, many of which I adored. He brought the city to life and I loved knowing exactly where he was describing. Nashville is certainly not perfect (I could give you a list) but it is wonderful in so many ways and this rang true throughout the novel. It's a great place for creatives and it rooted the novel in a hundred different ways.
You may wonder how life-giving a novel about the consequences of driving while texting can be. But this was life-giving because it didn't shy away from the harder parts of grief. It's hard to mourn our loved ones. I can only imagine how I would have responded had my best friends died in high school. At the same time, I have experienced loss and reading about others who grieve, even if they operate differently from me, is part of the healing process. It shows we're not alone and we can get through hard times. It's been a few years since I lost a loved one and I still benefit from those reminders. Plus, this novel is really about what it means to live and that's what made it such an enjoyable read.
I loved Goodbye Days so much, I want to give a copy of it away! (This is with my own cash money.) Giveaway is open to anyone, so long as you can receive a Kindle or Nook copy of the book. Giveaway ends tomorrow 3/14/17. Winner will be contacted by email and have 48 hours to acknowledge their prize.
Disclosure: I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Affiliate links included in this post.