How Many Letters Are In Goodbye? by Yvonne Cassidy (Flux, March 2016) is, I’m going to be honest, not a very cheery read, particularly for the first half. Early on, misery is piled on misery as Rhea describes her life on the streets of New York, surviving only by spending the minimum amount possible on slices of pizza, clinging to her only friend because he can secure them a place to stay using means that don’t inspire much happiness or optimism either. Aside from this, Rhea has lost both her parents, as well as suffering an accident which resulted in her losing an arm. To say this is a sobering read is something of an understatement.
Now I’m seventeen – in two weeks and five days I’ll be eighteen – and I’m old enough to know that stories are only stories and that happy beginnings don’t mean happy endings and that when people are dead, they’re just dead.
But. There is much to admire here too. For one thing, Rhea is not only an amputee but also a lesbian, meaning that How Many Letters Are in Goodbye? is a diverse read, coming out at a time when there appears to be a real demand for wider representation in literature. I read Eric Lindstrom’s Not If I See You First a few days before, so I may have reached my horrible-accident/dead-parent quota before coming to this book, but it is pleasing to see a range of perspectives, particularly in YA literature. That being said, Rhea’s disability and sexuality are accepted and processed, rather than dominating the narrative; the story is focused on Rhea dealing with her mother’s death, despite this having happened some time ago. The novel takes the form of letters from Rhea to her mother, which accounts for a large amount of the emotion generated; there is a palpable sense of loneliness emanating from Rhea’s letters, despite the abrasiveness which also features heavily.
How Many Letters Are In Goodbye? (a title which I only began to appreciate after I started reading) is a relatable story in many ways; Rhea struggles with issues of identity, changing her name and understandably becoming annoyed at being defined by her disability, as well as family and thinking about the future. I also admired the way in which Cassidy has written very sympathetically about homelessness, accurately reflecting the misery without falling prey to cliché. In using books about homelessness in teaching, I’ve often been horrified by the attitudes of my students as well as their willingness to blindly buy into stereotypes, and this book is enlightening on this issue.
Rhea is one of those protagonists whose past traumas mean she presents a hard and brittle exterior to the reader, so she is not always an easy character with whom to sympathise; it would be easy to make her a martyr or a victim, and she isn’t shown to be either one of these things. Again, this draws comparisons with Not If I See You First; I found myself wondering how Parker, the blind protagonist of that book, and Rhea would get along (my guess is, initially, not very well).
It’s worth pointing out that the final quarter of How Many Letters Are In Goodbye? is noticeably more uplifting, although not in an unconvincing or trite way. The secrets revealed late on probably come as more of a surprise to Rhea than the reader, but this build-up of dramatic irony is what finally creates true empathy for her as a character.
Overall, I respect what Cassidy’s doing with this book and the increasing diversity in YA characters and plots is a trend I appreciate. How Many Letters Are In Goodbye? is hard work at times, but ultimately, I think the pay-off is just about worth it.