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“Where are you guys? Text me back.”
That was the last text Carver sent to one of his three best friends before they were all killed in an accident. Mars had been driving when he got the text, and while he was checking it, their car collided into a truck, killing Mars, Eli and Blake. In one moment, Carver’s life is upended. His conscience weighs down on him, proclaiming that of course it’s his fault his friends are dead. Mars’s father is a powerful judge who’s looking to press negligent murder charges against Carver. But in all this hubbub, Carver still manages to find other people to find support in and with – Eli’s girlfriend, Blake’s grandmother, and his new therapist. When Blake’s grandmother suggest a Goodbye Day, – a day where Carver and her can do the things Blake loved, and have a proper goodbye – the other families start asking for these days too. Will Carver finally find redemption, some sense of closure, or will this end with him being declared the criminal that he thinks he is?
🌊 The in-depth portrayal of Carver’s PTSD and anxiety after the accident, as well as multiple therapy sessions that are executed rather well.
🌊 The concept of goodbye days.
🌊 An emphasis on familial relationships, friendships, and personal recovery.
🌊 The slow-burn nature of it inspired constant empathy, rather than one gratuitous pay-off that often reads like tragiporn.
🌊 Carver’s character development.
What didn’t work?
🌊 Some problematic content – suicide, and self-harm jokes go unchallenged, largely. (You can read more on this further into the review) and some homophobic jokes that – while challenged – aren’t done so in-depth.
🌊 The goodbye days past Blake’s aren’t given as much attention as I would have liked.
There is no word better than “intense” to describe Goodbye Days. From start to finish, it packs a punch- whether that’s in the sad reality of the death of three bright young people, or in the loss our main character is reeling from and dealing with, or in the guilt that’s crushing him, making him do things and think things that you don’t agree with, but can’t really refute either. It’s an emotional book with themes of family, friendship, guilt and grief layered one atop the other – masterfully, poignantly, and unflinchingly executed. It’s a Southern novel, and has the elements found in traditional Southern fiction; close-knit communities, a prominent presence of religious themes, discussions of justice, as well as some references to the realities of “Othering” in the South.
It’s not gratuitously tragic in the way that sad books more often than not are. It doesn’t follow the formula of everything building up until it finally implodes in one tragiporn climax… instead, Goodbye Days slowly burns away at your sense of empathy. There were several moments where I touched my face and realized a tear or two had spilled over at the random-est of moments. Sometimes, when you’ve lost someone or something, the smallest thing can set you off, and it’s so fascinating that this book felt a lot like that. I mourned for Eli, Blake and Mars. I mourned for them constantly, despite never having met them in the prose except through flashbacks. That’s an incredible feat.
Zentner does a fantastic job of pacing his story and balancing the sadder aspects of it with moments of hope; though the flashbacks of Carver’s life with his friends are tragic in and of themselves, they also provide insight into the meaning of friendship, into holding onto happy memories, even if they’re painful. His Goodbye Day with Blake’s grandmother was one of my favorite moments of the novel, because even though they’re mourning the wonderful person that was Blake, they’re still celebrating his life. In this way, it’s also a hopeful novel, while being a sad one, and this quality is what sets it apart from so many other novels characterized as “sad.”
I mentioned before that Zentner discusses the “Othering” in the South, and I thought this was brilliantly executed as well. Eli’s girlfriend Jesmyn, now one of Carver’s closest friends and support systems, is Filipina – there are several moments where Carver makes a seemingly innocuous remark that Jesmyn calls out as ignorant. She challenges him on some of his racist and misogynistic remarks every step of the way, and you really start to see him develop. To the point where he challenges a sexist remark that his therapist makes, and a racist remark that Eli’s grandmother makes. Carver and his friends have a history of joking about serious issues. They make homophobic jokes (this is challenged in-text, though not in a way that I agree with) and suicide/self-harm jokes (this is left unchallenged, largely, which is something I had a problem with), and it begs the question: after Carver’s development and his growing awareness, would he still make these jokes? I would’ve liked to see more in-text, explicit acknowledgement of the problematic nature of these jokes, though I still appreciated the conscious effort in the existing acknowledgment and correction. It speaks a lot for the authenticity of the Southern nature of the novel that ignorance exists. But this ignorance is also challenged (90% of the time), going to show that you can be authentic in showing the problematic aspects of your culture and characters without excusing them.
Goodbye Days was a damn good book, though not a perfect one. For one, like I mentioned above, some of the problematic jokes went unchallenged. Secondly, I would’ve liked a bit more emphasis on Eli and Mars’s Goodbye Days as well, especially because both their families’ have a very different reaction to Carver’s involvement in the accident than Blake’s grandmother did. I would have liked for this to be expanded upon. But other than these issues, Goodbye Days was a wonderful read. Poignant, moving, and incredibly memorable, and I’ll definitely be keeping Jeff Zentner in mind for any of his other books and new releases.
Suicide/self-harm jokes, homophobic jokes (challenged), homophobia, racist micro aggressions, grief, anxiety/PTSD.