‘I bet it won’t be long before scientists will be able to replicate people using DNA. It might take ten years, Mum, maybe twenty, but it won’t be long before that happens. Sometimes I think it’s scary and I hope it never happens and sometimes I wish it happened before so someone could have replicated you and you’d still be here instead of just in these letters that you never answer.
You never answer these fucking letters.
She’s dead, dumbass.’
‘How Many Letters Are In Goodbye?’ is an epistolary novel, narrated by Rhea Farrell. Rhea’s had a tough life: her mother drowned when she was very young, she lost an arm in an accident in her father’s butcher’s shop, and her father died in a car accident while drunk driving. Rhea has to move from Rush, Ireland, all the way to Coral Springs in Florida to live with her Aunt Ruth, her boyfriend Cooper and his daughter Laurie.
When Rhea starts writing the letters to her mother, it’s April 1999 and she’s living on the streets of New York. It immediately sets up an enigma code – why did she leave Ruth’s house? Why is she in New York? – and it takes a while for all of the answers to be revealed, but it just makes the conclusion of the novel much more satisfactory.
If you like a quick reveal, this definitely isn’t the book for you. It’s a slow-burner, and there are a lot of different things being dealt with: it takes a while to get any theories confirmed. Rhea fills in her mother on the events that are currently going on in her life, on the streets with her new friend Sergei, but eventually reveals her backstory in tantalizing pieces. She recalls prominent events from her childhood and the illicit relationship that caused her to run away from home to find herself.
Her whole life Rhea has had unanswered questions about her mother, but her father was always too upset to talk about her, so she goes to New York to investigate the early times in her mother’s life. She lived on the Upper East Side and attended Columbia, until a university exchange trip led to her meeting Rhea’s father and moving to Ireland. Rhea has planned on following in her mother’s footsteps, applying to Columbia herself, but after changing her name to Rae and becoming a completely different person in America, in takes a lot of soul-searching before she knows the direction she wants her life to take.
I’ve always felt conflict towards epistolary novels. I love the letter-writing format but more often than not it doesn’t strike the right balance: the character is constantly talking about their thoughts and feelings so it takes a lot of time for the plot to move forward, or it’s too reported (“first I did this, then I did this”). Thankfully, ‘How Many Letters Are In Goodbye?’ manages to get it right.
Yes, Rhea does wallow at the beginning of the novel, but if you’re living on the streets you’re completely justified in complaining! But you can definitely feel the development in Rhea, and towards the end of the novel when she thinks ‘I’m an adult now, not a kid anymore’ she’s actually right, she has gone through a bit change and is a much more mature person.
I do wonder how authentic the portrayal of being homeless in New York really was. Rhea seems to have quite an easy time of it, only needing to deal with rats and one incident where she’s threatened. I’ve never been to New York, but I’ve heard quite a few stories about it – it just seems as though it would be a lot more terrifying. This novel is set in 1999, so times have changed over the last decade and a half, but it was the only part of the story that made me raise an eyebrow.
Rhea struggling with her sexuality was done brilliantly: being Irish, disabled and a lesbian meant she couldn’t have been more of a minority character! Her sexuality is a part of the story but it’s not the focal point: yes, her relationship with Laurie is part of the reason that she ends up running away, but the relationships and the romance never become the only thing going on – Rhea has way more going on in her life that she needs to concentrate upon.
To deal with disability and sexuality and still have room for a brilliant plot? Yvonne Cassidy is a very talented writer. You end up falling in love with Rhea’s voice and her character, so in the end it’s nice to get answers but it’s not the most important thing. Normally I’m very eager to get all of the information, but I actually didn’t want this book to end!
If you want to read a book featuring a strong character who faces adversity, look no further. Rhea has to deal with being betrayed by Laurie, when she lies and says the Rhea forced her to be intimate, then has to struggle with Laurie turning up and telling Rhea she loves her as soon as Rhea has feelings for someone else. She also has to learn to cope with the truth about her mother, who she discovers committed suicide: Rhea worries whether one day she will be like her mother, and it’s nice to see vulnerability from a character who had been otherwise unemotional. Her mother had PTSD and depression because she was abused when she was younger, which goes some way to explaining why she committed suicide, but I was glad that Rhea didn’t just write it off as the only reason. She doesn’t get her answers and move on with her life – she’s not afraid to admit the knowledge altered her on a fundamental level.
And before you ask, yes, Yvonne tackles the question posed in the title:
‘I don’t know how many letters I have to write to say goodbye to you.’