When I fall in love with a book, it stays with me long after I’ve finished reading it. I wanted to share a review I wrote about a novel by Cynthia Hand that deeply moved me.
The Last Time We Say Goodbye: A Stunning Foray into Teen Realistic Fiction by Cynthia Hand
Cynthia Hand, best-selling author of the paranormal romance trilogy, Unearthly, has departed from the world of fantasy to write a deeply moving realistic teen novel about the impact of a sibling’s suicide. In doing so, she neatly avoids the problem with the “problem novels” that first gained tremendous popularity in the 1970’s. While heralded for taking on realistic problems teens were facing, such as suicide, substance abuse, and unwanted pregnancy, early problem novelists such as Jeanette Eyerly often made the difficult problem the focus rather than character development and growth. Hand, however, joins the ranks of outstanding contemporary YA novelists like Laurie Halse Anderson and Chris Crutcher by tackling painful subject matter with fully developed characters who struggle to grow and heal in the wake of devastating experiences.
As the novel opens, it’s been 47 days since Lex’s younger brother Tyler committed suicide. Lex, a brilliant math student and high school senior, is numb with grief. She’s broken up with her equally brilliant and devoted boyfriend Steven and distanced herself from her friends. Meantime, she tries to hold her mother together who’s drinking too much and crying at random times.
When Dave, her therapist, asks Lex to keep a journal to try to express the thoughts and feelings she’s bottling up, she reluctantly agrees, even while thinking to herself, “Next he’d be telling me to eat my vegetables and take my vitamins and be sure to get eight uninterrupted hours of sleep every night.”
Through her journal writing, we learn about the close relationship of Lex to her younger brother, and his history of depression and earlier suicide attempt after their dad walked out on them two years earlier. We also get an insider’s view of Lex and Steven’s romance. Hand captures their voices beautifully as Lex writes about being with him at a homecoming dance: “’You look like Euler’s equation,’ he murmured as he looked me up and down.” She goes on to explain: “Nerd translation: Euler’s equation is said to be the most perfect formula ever written. Simple but elegant. Beautiful.”
Gradually, Lex begins to take action to move ahead with her life. Interestingly, this involves parenting her parents. She takes some tentative steps toward reconciling with her dad. And, knowing she’s about to leave her depressed mother for MIT, she does the equivalent of an intervention. She insists that they spend three days visiting Graceland so her mother, a huge Elvis fan, can see that it’s possible to enjoy her life again. In the car, Lex ends up screaming at her to “stop saying your life is over… I love you, and I need you to be my mother, and I need you to have a life.”
But it’s only after one of her brother’s friends admits to her that he blames himself for not figuring out what Tyler was about to do in a final phone call that she has an epiphany. She too has been carrying around a terrible secret. On a romantic date with Steven, she failed to answer Tyler’s text asking to talk shortly before he killed himself. She’s blamed herself ever since for his death. But now, she realizes she has to let go of the mountain of self-recriminations she’s been carting around. Hand clearly wants her readers to get this take-away message and has Lex tell her brother’s friend: “I understand now that nobody could have saved Ty but Ty. There’s no one else to blame. Not you. Not me. Ty was holding all the cards.” While this feels a bit heavy-handed, the subsequent scene in which Lex reconciles with Steven is movingly rendered in an understated way.
Despite being a work of fiction, The Last Time We Say Goodbye has an air of authenticity throughout. And it should. Hand reveals in the acknowledgements that her younger brother committed suicide when he was seventeen. It took her several novels and more than a decade to write about such an emotionally painful and traumatic experience. For her readers, The Last Time We Say Goodbye was well worth the wait.
THE LAST TIME WE SAY GOODBYE
By Cynthia Hand
390 pp. HarperTeen. $17.99