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Three Stars for Jeff Zentner’s Goodbye Days

April 03, 2017

★ “Carver Briggs is a ‘seventeen-year-old funeral expert.’ After attending three consecutive services for his three best friends Mars, Eli and Blake, this may be the only thing he can say about himself anymore. It’s tragic enough that Carver’s friends were killed in a driving-while-texting car accident, but Carver feels responsible for it: it was his text that Mars was responding to when the accident happened. (‘Where are you guys? Text me back.’) Consumed by guilt, the aspiring author from Nashville can no longer write: ‘Your writing only has the power to kill,’ he tells himself. Wracked with grief, terrified by the potential lawsuit against him and bewildered by his new closeness with Jesmyn, Eli’s girlfriend (‘Ex-girlfriend? They never broke up’), Carver is foundering: ‘I once thought heartbreak was akin to contracting a cold or becoming pregnant. It only comes one at a time. Once you get it, you can’t get it again until you’re done with the first round.’ But it turns out your ‘love heart, separate from your grieving heart, or your guilt heart, or your fear heart’ can all be individually broken in their own way. Carver’s acute sensitivity drags him through each hellish day as he begins his senior year under the pall of friendlessness and blame. Eli’s twin sister, Adair, cannot forgive him, nor can Mars’s father, the formidable Judge Frederick Douglass Edwards, who sets in motion the criminal investigation into Carver’s role in the accident. When Blake’s grandmother asks Carver to take part in a ‘goodbye day’ with her—one final chance to do all the things they imagine Blake might have wanted to do on his last day—a seed is planted. Although Blake, Eli and Mars come from three families who have reacted very differently to their respective sons’ deaths, Carver begins to wonder if it wouldn’t be helpful for each family to have a goodbye day to help them move forward. In his gorgeous, devastating YA novel, Jeff Zentner (The Serpent King) explores the tormented inner life of a teenager in crisis. Although many will never experience tragedy on the scale Carver does, virtually everyone at some point goes through the kind of hardship that can drive a person deeply inward. With the help of a caring, funny therapist, memories of his sweet, smart and goofy friends, and Jesmyn, Carver struggles to find a way out of pure despair by recognizing that the living ‘still have to live.’” —Shelf Awareness, Starred Review

★ “Carver Briggs already feels responsible when his three best friends are killed in a car accident after he sent a ‘Where are you guys?’ text message to the driver. Now it seems as though the whole town wants him to be prosecuted, and he’s having debilitating panic attacks. When one friend’s grandmother suggests they pay tribute to the deceased by spending a ‘goodbye day’ swapping stories and doing what he loved, Carver finds a cathartic way to atone for his perceived sins. From the opening line, Zentner (The Serpent King) expertly channels Carver’s distinctive voice as a 17-year-old writer turned ‘funeral expert’ who argues with himself about girls and retains glimmers of easy wit despite the weight of his grief and guilt. Flashbacks and daydreams capture the jovial spirit of the four members of the so-called Sauce Crew, glimpses of sophomore shenanigans interspersed with poignant admissions only best friends would share. Racial tensions, spoiled reputations, and broken homes all play roles in an often raw meditation on grief and the futility of entertaining what-ifs when faced with awful, irreversible events.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

★ “‘I may have killed my three best friends,’ 17-year-old Carver agonizes. How so? He sent a text to his friend Mars, knowing the boy was driving at the time; distracted by replying to the text, Mars crashed into a stopped truck, killing himself and Carver’s two other best friends, Blake and Eli. Now Mars’ father, a judge, has called on the district attorney to open an investigation and weigh charges of criminally negligent homicide against Carver. Bereft and virtually friendless, riddled by guilt, and overwhelmed by stress, Carver begins having panic attacks, which send him into therapy. Interestingly, he makes an unlikely new friend in Eli’s girlfriend, Jesmyn, but when he tells her that he desires more than friendship with her, she rejects him. Meanwhile, Carver’s attempts at atonement with Blake’s grandmother, Eli’s parents, and Mars’ father meet with mixed success, feeding his subconscious desire for punishment. Zentner does an excellent job in creating empathetic characters, especially his protagonist Carver, a budding writer whose first-person account of his plight is artful evidence of his talent. The story builds suspense while developing not only empathetic but also multidimensional characters in both Carver and Jesmyn. The result is an absorbing effort with emotional and psychological integrity.” —Booklist, Starred Review