I’d heard of this book from friends and seen it around with solid reviews on GoodReads. I’d also heard of Leslie Connor before, mostly via Waiting For Normal, which I loved. The Things You Kiss Goodbye has been on my list for a while, though I did skip over it a few times on the shelf for something more lighthearted. I had this feeling all along that this one would get me right in the feels and that’s exactly what happened.
Early on Connor introduces us to Bettina Vasilis. She’s clearly a grunge girl. You know the type. Her family is from Greece, and because of this Bettina naturally feels a bit different from everyone else. Deep down inside she feels like an outsider, and she projects this uncertainty with lots of henna tattoos and grungy mini skirts. Her parents are very strict and have this air of disappointment when it comes to Bettina’s choices, particularly her Bampas (father). Bettina manages her relationship with Bampas by yes-ing him to his face while living an undercover life. She sneaks out and skips classes on a regular basis.
I kind of get Bettina, but I don’t feel the closeness with her that I do with, say, Meg Garcia from I Was Here. You sort of observe this story and character as opposed to feeling a part of what’s happening. Also, in very fundamental ways she seems to weaken as the book goes on, which compounds this issue.
Bettina catches the eye of Brady Cullen. Brady is on the basketball team and socially everything Bettina is not. They sneak around after school for a few weeks, while Bettina is hesitant to take the relationship any further due to Bampas’s rule against dating. One afternoon Brady introduces himself to Bampas and all that changes. Brady is accepted by the Vasilis family and becomes Bettina’s key to freedom and a more normal life.
The relationship is perfect and progresses over a spring and summer, which in high school is an eternity. One day the two run through a rainstorm and end up sneaking into Brady’s basement. He’s set up an old futon mattress with Sesame Street sheets and pushes things too far. Bettina’s not ready and the relationship begins to take an abusive turn. Brady is rough with Bettina on lots of occasions. She brushes it off and blames herself, but the abuse gets worse.
Around this time Bettina meets Cowboy. Cowboy is nice and respects Bettina in all the ways Brady does not. He is much older and does his best to stay just-friends with Bettina even though it’s clear there’s a strong attraction. With the abuse from Brady continuing, Cowboy is there to care for Bettina and treat her injuries. Cowboy also has a secret that draws him closer to Bettina.
Eventually Cowboy and Bettina come to terms with their relationship and decide to be together. This is where tragedy strikes and the part where I totally lost it, like full box of Kleenex lossssst it! No spoilers, but I’ll say that this is where Connor really shines and something I’d like to see more of in her next book.
This book was a journey. It’s a bit tough to read at times, especially when Bettina insists on blaming herself for the abuse from Brady. She sticks around and sticks around, hoping Brady will change. In the end, Bettina does stand on her own in all the important ways. If you’re on the fence, I’d say that Bettina’s relationship with Cowboy alone makes the book worth it.