Before Goodbye by Mimi Cross

This RITA® Reader Challenge 2017 review was written by Leigh. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Best First Book category.

The summary:

Music means more than anything to high school student Cate Reese; it’s also what unites her with Cal Woods. Devoted classical guitar players, Cate and Cal are childhood friends newly smitten by love—until a devastating car accident rips Cal out of Cate’s life forever. Blaming herself for the horrific tragedy and struggling to surface from her despair, Cate spirals downhill in a desperate attempt to ease her pain.

Fellow student David Bennet might look like the school’s golden boy, but underneath the surface the popular athlete battles demons of his own. Racked with survivor’s guilt after his brother’s suicide, things get worse when tragedy darkens his world again—but connecting with Cate, his sister’s longtime babysitter, starts bringing the light back in.

As Cate and David grow closer, the two shattered teenagers learn to examine the pieces of their lives…and, together, find a way to be whole again.

Here is Leigh‘s review:

Trigger Warnings: suicide, rape, attempted rape, drug use, physical abuse

I stopped playing the flute after sixth grade. As much as I enjoyed orchestra performances and placing in competitions, I hated practicing and it became clear this would not change. For that reason alone, musicians have always intrigued me. Their dedication to their craft and their willingness to practice for hours (HOW?!) is impressive and I enjoy novels that allow us to peek behind the curtain into their world.

Cate Reese and her best friend Cal Woods are talented classic guitar players. They first met at summer music camp years ago but now they see each other in more romantic light. There was a delightful amount of angst as Cate pondered whether they should take things to the next level. There’s also a fair amount of hero worship on Cate’s part since Cal is pretty much a musical prodigy.

After music camp, Cate returns to Middleburg, where her parents have relocated their family. They’ve summered there the past four years and Cate is happy to live in the same town as her best friend Laurel, even though it means starting at a new school and Laurel keeps overly busy with her girlfriend, whom Cate doesn’t like. She goes to water the plants at the Bennet house while they’re on vacation (she’s babysat for Kimmy the previous summers.) But the house isn’t empty. Plot twist!

Kimmy’s older brother David, a senior, is there, convalescing from an accident while camping in Canada. He won’t talk about what happened to anyone but Cate can see he’s not his usual buoyant jocky self. Even though she’s super tongue tied around him, she reaches out and they start spending time together.

This confuses Cate. Because she likes Cal. Right?

This confuses David, too. Because he doesn’t deserve someone as sweet and innocent as Cate. Right?

In the meantime, Cate and Cal finally go on a date but Cal gets into a car accident while driving them home and dies. In the midst of her grief over losing her best friend- and the inevitable survivor’s guilt- Cate is also trying to figure out what Cal meant to her. He wasn’t quite her boyfriend but he might have been.

The portrayal of Cate’s grief was gripping and realistic, particularly how she does or doesn’t deal with it. Her relationship to her guitar is irrevocably altered without Cal, her muse, around. Her grief is a slow descent into hell. This happened so organically that her spiral out of control almost surprised me. Is she a reliable narrator? Yes and no. She’s a grieving teenager. Take that as you will.

David was wrestling with his own grief and survivor’s guilt. He’s decided not to play sports anymore, in defiance of his dad, and he doesn’t hang out with his friends all that much either. He’s not quite depressed; it’s more like he’s figuring out who he is post-accident.
David and Cate observe each other grieving more than they talk about it but the bond is there. They also have lackluster families in common. David isn’t a musician but he starts working at a music store and has some great insights for Cate’s guitar playing.

We should be rooting for them to get together but I couldn’t get fully on board. David never grew on me. Plus, the two spend more time apart than together. Were this not supposed to be a romance, that would be fine, but as a romance, I needed David and Cate to have more positive interactions.

We get both Cate’s and David’s perspectives, with Cate’s POV being more predominant. As a result, her character growth was stronger. I felt like I knew Cate and her motivations much better than David but I still wanted more from both characters.

The sheer number of things happening in this novel almost makes me want to suggest making a Bingo game out of it, were not so many of them potential trigger warnings. The list includes suicide, rape, attempted rape, drug use, physical abuse, deadly car accident, drowning, bullying, and neglect. Anyone else feel the need to take a deep breath?

The story would have been better served by only focusing on a few of these and let them be the driving force. We’d start to see how a character was processing one thing before we’d be whipped along to the next. While these are heavy issues, I didn’t experience this as a heavy book, likely because most of these plot points weren’t fully developed.

The dynamic between David and his dad (a vile POS) could have used more exploration, as well as Cate’s relationship with her parents. I wanted to know what David and Cate were learning, particularly given the traumas Cate faced. Their inner monologues could get choppy and often what they said they said didn’t match up to their actions. Yes, that can be true for all of us but the “why” matters.

Case in point: David was basically a manwhore. Along the way, he comes to see how he is using these girls for his own satisfaction. This was a great realization but it didn’t lead to much change in terms of his interactions with his past girlfriends.

Show Spoiler
His past girlfriends are pretty one-dimensional stereotypical depictions. He was such a jackhole to them. Toward the end of the book, as he’s finally starting to pursue Cate, he sleeps with an ex. It was disconcerting to say the least and why I didn’t trust his motivations concerning Cate.

By the end, David and Cate have moved toward one another and taken a chance on love. At long last David shares what happened to him in Canada and it was way, way, way too brief. For all his brooding, this should have been the payoff, not a whimper.

The best parts of the book dealt with music. The descriptions of Cal and Cate playing and getting lost in the music and theory, the scenes of David and Cate listening to music and giving each other band recommendations, Cate figuring out what kind of musician she actually wants to be. It’s clear the author has a musical background and her perspective is imbued on each page. If you love music, it’ll be worth reading this just for those parts alone.

I let go, still not with my guitar, but with my voice.

And this time, when I stop playing, the band fills in the blanks. Their sound swells around me. Waves carrying me atop a sea, their instruments making up the fact that mine is missing…Playing with a band is like having a parachute of gossamer and steel. It’s having people who have your back, who know your secrets, who know you.

Singing with a band is trampolining with your breath. A sound you make, that makes you, too.

I liked the depiction of grief, any part related to music, and the deliciousness known as teenage angst. It felt like a First Novel with too much crammed in it but it made me curious about what Mimi Cross does next. Particularly if she continues to place her characters in music-related contexts.

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Before Goodbye by Mimi Cross

January 1, 2016

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