Seventeen-year-old Rhea Farrell carries the scars of a childhood accident in which she lost her arm. But she also carries scars that aren’t so visible–the loss of a mother she hardly remembers, the impact of her father’s drinking, and her confusion and pain around accepting her sexuality.
When Rhea runs away, she turns to the person she always wished she could confide in–her mother. And just like she used to do as a little girl, Rhea starts to write her letters–to tell her things she can’t tell anyone else, to share her fears, to ask for help. Rhea’s journey on the streets of New York brings her deeper into her mother’s past where she uncovers buried family secrets. And as she finds out more about the woman her mother truly was, Rhea also discovers just what kind of woman she wants to be.
Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to be a homeless teen living on the streets of NYC in the years before the internet? What about a queer homeless teen? Or maybe a queer homeless teen with one arm? And she’s an orphan?
There’s a lot to think about in this book, as the main character Rhea has been through some major hardships. Her childhood was not exactly perfect, but when she has to give it up to live with her Aunt in Florida, she does not adapt well. She resents . . . well . . . almost everyone. When conflict erupts in her Aunt’s Florida home, Rhea sets out for NYC in search of answers and independence.
Oh boy, is Rhea headstrong. She’s so stubborn and proud. At times it made the book hard to read, but ever so slowly she starts to drop her defenses and open up to the truth of things. She’s a terribly unreliable narrator, but in my opinion this just made the How Many Letters more interesting to read. It was obvious at times that she was ignoring the truth, and that made me eager to keep reading and see if she ever figured it out. It’s irritating though, and in part because of Rhea’s scarring childhood and other hardships that damaged her over time, she was often obnoxious and rude to the people around her. As terrible as these interactions sometimes were to read, Rhea has a lot to be angry about and I can’t definitively say that I wouldn’t act the same way if I were in her position.
Another thing that made her narrative unreliable was the form of the book: a collection of letters told in retrospect. It’s a diary of sorts, except Rhea is reflecting on her life by writing unsent letters to her dead mother. This is interesting for two main reasons – the first is that Rhea knows very little about her mother at the beginning of the book and learns a great deal as the story progresses, and the second is that Rhea learns so much about herself through her experiences, the change from the beginning to the end is really remarkable.
I wouldn’t say that Rhea is a likable character, really. She’s a sympathetic character, that’s for certain, but if I were to attempt to have a conversation with her, I’d give up pretty fast. Like I said though, her past has left her scarred, and you can’t help but feel bad for her. Rhea’s situation screams sympathy, but the irony is that she won’t accept anyone’s pity or concern for her.
I really enjoyed the way this story was told. Rhea seems like the kind of person who wouldn’t be able to be honest with anyone face to face – which is why having an outlet like writing letters so important for her character development. Unlike stories that are told using long flashback sections, Rhea tells her story as she remembers it, able to write about her memories as she thinks they’re relevant to her life. In her opinion, her past is not always relevant to her present, and often it is too painful to revisit her past anyway. That’s why this story holds so much dramatic tension.
Rhea has more “enemies” in the beginning than she does in the end of the book. That’s true character development, and I found the ending very rewarding for this reason. I may not have agreed with all of Rhea’s actions or feelings in How Many Letters, but the story grabbed hold of my attention and didn’t let it waver. I was truly riveted.
About the Author:
Yvonne Cassidy (New York, NY) is an Irish author who has written three novels, including How Many Letters Are in Goodbye. When she’s not writing, Yvonne works at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen and uses her writing skills for fundraising and teaching creative writing.