Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Review: The Last Time We Say Goodbye - Cynthia Hand

Release Date: February 10, 2015
Source: Edelweiss
Published by: Harper Teen

The Last Time We Say Goodbye - Cynthia Hand | Goodreads

There's death all around us.
We just don't pay attention.
Until we do.

The last time Lex was happy, it was before. When she had a family that was whole. A boyfriend she loved. Friends who didn't look at her like she might break down at any moment.

Now she's just the girl whose brother killed himself. And it feels like that's all she'll ever be.

As Lex starts to put her life back together, she tries to block out what happened the night Tyler died. But there's a secret she hasn't told anyone-a text Tyler sent, that could have changed everything.

Lex's brother is gone. But Lex is about to discover that a ghost doesn't have to be real to keep you from moving on.

From New York Times bestselling author Cynthia Hand, The Last Time We Say Goodbye is a gorgeous and heart-wrenching story of love, loss, and letting go.

This is a hard review to write, just as I am sure that this was a hard book for the author to write. In a note at the end, Cynthia Hand talks about the suicide of her brother. Well, I'm inclined to believe that she successfully portrayed grieving her brother, as I, while reading, was also reminded me of my friend, who committed suicide last August. I don't really know how much help this review will be because I'm not sure how much of my experience of this book was because of the book or because of the memories it elicited regarding my friend's suicide.

The first sign I had of me probably not reacting the way a normal reader would is my annoyance with the main character (smart, rational, adept at math, and aspiring to attend MIT if she can find her peace with her grief/brother's suicide) at the beginning of the novel. In the beginning, the MC disdains the idea of her therapist actually helping her (and is afraid that he's going to put her on pills and then that would make things worse). She admits to closing herself off from her old friends, not doing as well in school but not wanting her friend's pity or concern on that end. I read this maybe 2-3 months after I had moved onto an "acceptable" place of grief. So, I was irritated with the MC: I thought, really? Isolating yourself from everyone because no one understands? How silly. Quite honestly, I was shocked with myself. Just because I had gone through a similar situation did not make my grief or grieving process any more superior than hers; nor did it make her pain any less palpable or real.

But here is the true magic of the novel: despite my less than ideal experience with the beginning, I grew to care for Alexis, and her character growth was rather fantastic. Cynthia Hand handled the reveal of what exactly happened to Tyler so, so well. Readers may well guess why Alexis feels so guilty, and what actually happened to Tyler, why she and her mother seem to be seeing/smelling him around the house, but guessing does not take at all away from the emotional impact. I was in a weird place while reading the emotional climax: somehow still remembering finding about my friend's suicide, thinking about my friend, missing him so, so much; and still reading and feeling Alexis's story. And in that place, I was *this* close to breaking down and sobbing. The emotional impact is probably so powerful because of Alexis's character growth, the plot element of her diary, and the new relationships that she forms.

I don't tend to like diary-like/journal elements, or when the MC addressees the reader specifically, but Alexis, per her therapist's orders, writing about her brother and her dreams and what happened, the firsts and the lasts -- it was powerful and moving. The side characters in this novel and the plot threads they bring with regard to Alexis's grieving process are truly remarkable. At first I was not a fan of her mother because that involved a trope in which the daughter has to assume a lot of responsibility because the mother is unable of coping (and strangely, most of the time, it is the mother). No matter how much that might happen in real life, I always cringe a little when I see that happening in YA because it reoccurs so, so often and feels like a ploy to make me like the MC (rather than liking her for who she is, vs how certain situations show her); but this novel took the mother/daughter relationship to an unexpected level. How her mother reacts is so, so believable: the discussions she and Alexis have about the future also so poignant. Alexis's relationships with the other characters - friends and estranged/emotionally distant father - feel real and well developed (loved all the backstory for all her old (and new) friends! Think Lauren Oliver community-character-esque in Before I Fall). The romance was adorable -- so, maybe not much of it was occurring on the same timeline of the book because of Alexis's grief, but the memories, the potential. Adorable. Quite simply, there is a lot to like about this book. It tugs on your heartstrings in its depiction of grief without using a high concept like that in If I Stay. It feels like a Cynthia Hand book: she made paranormal romance feel authentic and original despite its abundance when Unearthly was published. Writing about grief and suicide is not new, but she's definitely made this feel authentic and emotionally poignant.

12 comments:

  1. I have a copy of this which I really can't wait to read soon! I've loved Hand's previous paranormal reads, so can't wait to see how she deals with a contemporary novel. Gorgeous review Christina! :)

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  2. I also found this book moving. At the beginning I was also a bit skeptical about Alexis, only because I find the whole "genius who can't figure out the meaning of life" thing kind of tricky sometimes. But as the book went on, I did like the way things were handled -- the grief, the family relationships, the romance, etc.

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  3. Yes, she does gorgeously in her portrayal of grief. I hope you enjoy it, Jasprit! I'll have to come by your blog later to check out when you do read TLTWSG :)

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  4. Ah! So maybe it wasn't just me being bitter about my grief in comparison to hers. Maybe the beginning with genius and meaning of life confusion is a hard thing for any writer to get right. Also, I saw your email. You replied to the right address! (Both times). I don't remember where the other was sent, but it came through :). I'm glad that we both enjoyed this book, Jen, & see you tomorrow re: BGD :)

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  5. This book sounds so sad, I don't know if it's for me, to be honest. But it does sound beautifully written and I do like the fact that the romance is adorable. I'll have to think about it. Great review! ~Pam

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  6. If it helps, I've heard nothing but good things from other bloggers too. Although there are a lot of suicide and depressing books being released this January/February, this book is definitely one that stands out among the crowd. :) It's true that it's sad, but I think in the end, it beats that sadness and comes out as a celebration of life.

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  7. I just told another reviewer that I scanned over this one because I hated that cover, but now that I know the subject, I am going to grab it. I am disappointed that authors are still treating therapy and medical assistance as such a negative thing. Medication for anxiety and depression is still getting so much heat to the point where I hate to even mention that I am on it to help control anxiety.



    My heart still hurts for you regarding your friend. *many many hugs*

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  8. I think you might be a little disappointed by how medication (pills, specifically) is treated in Last Time We Say Goodbye, but maybe the other emotional aspects of the book will grip you? Though I must also say, your comment on medication makes me think that you will really like Made You Up by Francesca Zappia :).


    And thanks! His birthday was January 22. He would've been 23.

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  9. What a great review, Christina! It's seems like it would be so difficult to write about not only a difficult subject but one that's so personal too. I haven't read any of Cynthia Hand's novels but after reading your review, I really want to pick this one up.

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  10. I'm sorry to hear about your friend, Christina! I would think this story would really strike a nerve. It really speaks to Ms. Hand's writing ability that she was realistically able to capture the repercussions of such a tragic act. I haven't had someone close to me commit suicide, but I'd imagine you'd have a lot of conflicting emotions. I think I'd feel a lot of anger and hurt. Lovely review! :)

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  11. Thanks, Megan! I agree: I think the fact that this is such a difficult but personal subject may lead to the reason why some "issue" books seem to be more harshly judged than other books. I had a bit of that too! I hope that you get a chance to read The Last Time We Say Goodbye, and if you do, that you enjoy it :)

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  12. Thanks, Rachel! In the author's note, Ms. Hand says that her brother committed suicide and that is part of her inspiration for the novel. I wonder if her personal experience helped in the creation of how realistic and beautifully she portrayed the aftermath of a family dealing with grief.

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