It’s a classic story: Boy meets girl at a dance; boy and girl get hot and heavy for a while; boy and girl break up. In Julie Burtinshaw’s Saying Good-bye to London, the boy (Francis) and girl (Sawyer) make a baby-sized complication during their short and turbulent romance. By the time Sawyer is able accept the situation, an abortion is no longer an option, and the two high-school exes have a serious problem on their hands.
Burtinshaw commits fully to the teen perspective, sticking predominantly to a close third-person narration focused on the well-to-do Francis, whose life has run butter-smooth to this point. Sawyer, who hails from a rough part of town and has the thick black eyeliner to prove it, is given less play, narratively, but is still well developed and interesting.
Francis is realistically flawed, but through the book his growth seems to occur mostly when he’s pushed into it by others or by a lack of options. While there would be no story if Francis were artificially mature, it’s not always clear if we’re supposed to be on his side (especially during moments of pure selfishness, such as when his stress over the pregnancy makes it tough for him to enjoy his business-class seat or ocean-front room during his family’s annual trip to Hawaii), all while he is refusing to speak to Sawyer.
Sawyer, however, while leaning a little hard at times on the tough-but-wise trope often ascribed to scrappy poor girls, is easy to cheer for, and her single mom even more so. The supporting cast, including Sawyer’s gay friend Jack, who has been kicked out of his home, and Francis’s friend Kevin, who is dealing with his terminally ill father, are wonderfully warm, smart, and nuanced.
Burtinshaw’s spot-on dialogue and tight prose keep the pages turning fast, with many rewards along the way, including a fun scene with a fortune teller that gives clever hints of what’s to come.
Teen pregnancy stories are often tales of growing up fast, but Saying Good-bye to London is smarter and more complex than that. This is a book about how nothing can force a child to grow up fast enough to face an adult situation as an adult would, but also about how there can be surprising rewards in tough times, including friendship, self-acceptance, and even joy.