I have my mom to thank for my love of letter-writing. As a child, anytime I would receive a gift, she’d sit me down at the kitchen table with a box of “Thank You” cards, and would instruct me to write a thoughtful letter to the gift-giver. It was a chore at first, I admit, but I eventually came to love how I could purposefully choose the best words to express my thoughts. That sentiment still rings true today. I love writing letters, and when upset or feeling particularly emotional, I will write a letter to the universe. The familiarity of the task never fails to make me feel calmer and more rational. This is why I was so intrigued by the synopsis of How Many Letters Are In Goodbye? by Yvonne Cassidy, about a teenage girl on the brink of becoming a woman, who writes letters to her dead mother in a cathartic attempt to make sense of the confusion of her world.
Rhea Farrell could be a study on “tortured souls” in YA literature. Originally from Ireland, Rhea was a young girl when her mum disappeared without warning. For a while afterward, Rhea and her father would write letters to her mum, which her father always promised to post. One day, after a visit from Rhea’s aunt, her father refused to write, gruffly reprimanded Rhea for doing so, and that was that. Then, an accident happened. As if Rhea hadn’t lost enough, she lost something else of herself, quite literally. Her dad started disappearing, too, drifting away on rivers of alcohol into the darkness of his depression, until he was gone.
Rhea’s aunt whisks her away to Florida to live with her husband and daughter, and Rhea does her best to fit in, both at school and at home, though an abusive step-uncle and conflicted feelings about her new step-sister, Laurie, prevent even the slightest bit of normalcy in her life. After a frightening encounter with her step-uncle, when he catches her and Laurie in a compromising situation, Rhea decides to run away to New York City, where her mum was born and lived before moving to Ireland. Forced by her circumstances to live on the streets, Rhea becomes fast friends with Sergei, whose hook-ups at gay bars sometimes leaves them with a place to stay and with food to eat.
Up to this point in the story, we learn about Rhea’s past and how she came to be in New York through letters she has started writing once again to her mum, sheltering in diners or while sitting on benches in nearby parks. This is where the story begins to plod and sag quite a bit. Through her letters, we follow Rhea as she counts change in her head, calculating how many slices of pizza she can afford to eat with the money she has, and as she attempts to find employment but is categorically denied due to her handicap. We follow her through the subway system of New York City, through strange apartments and hotel rooms with Sergei and his lovers, and eventually, through the doors of a help group, where she meets a woman who will change her life.
In the story that follows, Rhea discovers torrid family secrets and the truth about her mum. She also learns a lot about dealing with grief and disappointment, about her own sexuality, and about how to deal with the blows of life with the grace of a woman and not the conceit of a child. How Many Letters Are In Goodbye? features quite a few hard-hitting subject matters, including suicide, questions of sexuality, sexual abuse, and child neglect and abuse. As such, it is not a light-hearted read by any means. As such, it is not a light-hearted read by any means. However, considering the weight of the subject matter, most threads in the plot never quite reached its full potential of making me feel something deep and profound.
The plot itself is rather tragic, and so much happens to Rhea that it’s almost unbelievable when added together, but I was willing to buy into her story. The letters she writes to her mum are more akin to internal dialogues and reflection, though I suppose that’s to be expected when Rhea has no one else to talk to; at least, no one she’ll let get close enough to talk to her about her issues. Rhea herself is a sympathetic character, due to her circumstances; as a person, she is abrasive, distrustful, and unpredictable. I admit, there were several times when I rolled my eyes at her. The characters I most admired were two older women, who take Rhea under their wing, despite her protests and, frankly, her nasty, ungrateful attitude.
It is through the inclusion of these two characters that the reader learns to see Rhea from a different perspective. I was happy to see that the importance of sound counseling for grief and depression is positively highlighted, instead of disparaged. If more teenage kids felt that it is okay to reach out to a professional for help, that it’s normal to feel not-normal, perhaps we’d see fewer tragic headlines in our news. I hope to see a more positive emphasis on this in Young Adult literature in the future.
Overall, How Many Letters Are In Goodbye? is an intriguing read, though not a hard-hitting emotional one, as it should have been. Fans of contemporary stories that feature a character dealing with and overcoming adversity will enjoy it. Is that you, dear reader?