The is Not a Love Letter
by Kim Purcell
As an avid reader, I look for a lot of things in the novels that I choose to spend my time with. Reading is not merely a job for me, it is a way of life. I have escaped into books since my childhood spent in the humid bayous and the honeysuckle filled countrysides of Louisiana, using them to provide balance and fantasy, to expand my vocabulary and to help rid myself of a thick Southern accent by speaking the words aloud.
I do my best to read a range of work. Some are thick tomes that span generations, like the book I’m currently caught up in. Some are paranormal scripts wrought with intrigue, battle, and more often than not – a curious romance. And some are even erotic in nature, or a new bestseller that everyone is talking about (or both).
I was turned onto Disney-Hyperion books last year, and I have learned that I have to be careful with them. While some are fun-filled adventures full of new characters to love or to despise, the majority of the books I’ve picked up from this imprint are gritty, thought-provoking, frighteningly relevant, and cut all too close to the bone. I have sobbed my way through A List of Cages, rooted for the underdog in Threads, and very nearly lost my faith in humanity while reading The Bone Sparrow.
Each and every time I’ve finished these novels so full of heartfelt depth and raw honesty, I have placed them on my bookshelf with a little extra love. There are books that you read to forget, and there are books that you real to feel.
I knew when I requested an ARC of This is Not a Love Letter, the newest novel by Kim Purcell, I’d more than likely be finishing it with a lump in my throat. And boy was I correct in my belief. I knew it would be hard to read, as the subject matter sent more than a few blaring-red-lights into my trigger zone. I lost my mother to suicide, but not in the sense you would assume. My mother’s sister, after years of battling mental illness, chose to take her own life on my mother’s birthday when I was a young girl. It is a day that is forever burned into the forefront of my mind as the day that I not only lost my aunt, but I lost my mother.
The phone call came and my mother fell to her knees. She spent weeks and months seriously contemplating her own suicide. After several unsuccessful attempts, she allowed her own mental illness to take over and hid behind her grief and pain with drugs and alcohol as numbing agents. I was left to monitor her survival, to care for my younger brother, to attempt to navigate myself through my adolescence and impending teenage years virtually alone. I was no more than 13 years old.
Suicide leaves a ripple effect the likes of which nothing is comparable to. Some call it the ultimate act of selfishness; I call it the ultimate act of sadness and despair. Others ask how anyone could ever be so unhappy that they would believe simply not existing is the answer. I can tell you from the experience of watching my mother contemplate this question every day for more than two decades, that those who think of suicide as an answer deserve our utmost sympathy and forgiveness. They do not deserve our judgments.
This is Not a Love Letter is simple in it’s story. It is a study of the aftermath of suicide. Of not knowing – why, when, how. Of the attempt to move on. It holds a message of the ripple suicide leaves in it’s path; a wave of true destruction. It is the analysis of an immature teenage mind desperately trying to figure out the complexities of a tangled web of adult situations and feelings. It is also, in it’s essence, a love story.
Jessie has always had a hard time letting people into her circle. No new friends – it could be her battle cry. She has her reasons. The biggest is probably her mother; caught up in her own diseased mind and a victim of self-loathing, Jessie’s mom took to extreme hoarding before she took to her bed. There are times Jessie even forgets she has a mother, and then the image of an overweight woman in a dirty nightgown will float down the hall past her on the way to the bathroom, mindlessly kicking along stacks of unread magazines or piles of other things they will never use.
She has a handful of friends. Most of which belong to Chris. They are only her friends by extension . . . as a nod of respect they hold for her boyfriend, the famed ballplayer who is set to leave their little town and move on to college with a scholarship to play. He’s popular and good-looking, full of laughter and jokes. And regardless of the fact that he’s one of the few black kids in small school in a close-minded small town, he fits in. Of all the girls he could have chosen, he picked Jessie . . . the girl with the ratty tangerine-colored hair and too much pudge around the middle.
As their graduation began to sneak it’s way past the periphery of their lives and into the foreground, both Jessie and Chris felt the intimate pangs of mutual panic. Jessie was desperate to get out of their small town, eager to move on with her life and make something of it that didn’t consist of living in a run-down house in the bad part of the neighborhood. Chris was desperate to bring Jessie with him to the big city; for her to be on the sidelines of his success, cheering him on as his own personal booster of sunshine. All of his feelings were wrapped up in this one girl – his Jessie – and life without her would have no meaning, he was sure of that.
But Jessie couldn’t seem to wrap her head around the fact that she might end up in the shadow of his success, without a real identity of her own. And so after a fight about their future, one that left her saying things she wishes to God she could take back, Jessie insisted upon a break. Just a short break so she could clear her head – alone. Chris didn’t want it, he protested in vain, and now . . .
. . . Chris has disappeared. Vanished. Not a trace. The police in town believe he’s run away, his mother thinks all she has to do is leave it up to God, everyone is saying not to worry, but Jessie – she knows in her gut there has to be something more to the story. He’d been harassed lately, for the color of his skin and for his natural talents, and Jessie believes that he may have been taken or worse – pushed into the unforgiving depths of the rapids that surround the verdant woods in their area. Woods that the pair have traveled into countless times, he on foot and she on her bike. Woods that hold the secrets to their first meeting and their early kisses, their whispers and their dreams. She worries that those very same woods where they sought sanctuary may have claimed him as a prisoner for good.
Over the span of days and weeks, Jessie takes to her journal to write down every detail she can think of in critical review, as an effort at putting the pieces together. Maybe there is a clue; something small that she forgot that could turn out to be something big. Perhaps something written on those pages will jog her memory into remembering where he could be, where he would seek refuge and solitude. Because Chris can’t be gone for good – he’s all she really has.
When her poking and prodding leads to threats and nasty situations, Jessie finds herself in deeper than she ever imagined . . . but she can’t give up, because sometimes it feels like she’s the only one looking for him. She has to find Chris, she has to bring him home and tell him that it will all be okay, and she will stop at nothing to learn the truth about what happened to the boy she loved and what her actions might have pushed him to do.
This is Not a Love Letter is the newest novel by Kim Purcell, an author known for her provocative approach to relationship complexities, real world issues, and compelling storylines. The insert that accompanied my ARC copy states that Purcell was inspired by the tragic loss of a close friend of hers who suffered from mental illness and took his own life while they were in high school together. A subject that has in the past been utterly taboo, teen suicide has in recent years been thrust into the spotlight as a relevant matter – as it should be. With numerous social media avenues and technology readily at teenage fingertips, acute bullying has taken on an entirely new meaning, while mental illness is plaguing people of all ages across a land where universal health care is a joke. Teenagers are growing up in a fishbowl (and in more than half of most families, without both parents at home) with every detail of their lives on display for critique and criticism by their peers and by strangers, and where emotions are already at a heightened state, illnesses such as depression and anxiety are being triggered exponentially – sometimes to disastrous effects.
In this brutally honest young adult novel, nothing is left hidden. The life of Jessie and her experiences with Chris are laid naked and bare for everyone to see, and the result is a detailed examination of a modern-day teenager’s world. Giving the book 4.5 out of 5 stars, I recommend it to readers ages 15+ (as there is some language and some mild depictions of sex) and encourage parents to read it as well. I was touched by how on-point Purcell was in her observations: the truth in her depiction of Jessie’s feelings, the difficult frankness in the racial injustices Chris endured, and the adult situations in which these young people were involved in. I admire and applaud the author for doing her due diligence into something that everyone should be aware of. Suicide is on the rise, especially amongst our youth, and we can no longer hide behind “not knowing” as parents, adults, teachers, influencers.
This book hit very close to home, leaving me uncomfortable and raw as I remembered the same feelings Jessie had. Understanding the ripple effect of suicide on all those directly and indirectly involved is paramount. The guilt that survivors endure is bitter and agonizing, and can trigger those left behind in ways that are unimaginable. Feelings of low self-worth, diminished self-esteem, isolation, depression, and anxiety are so prevalent in our children and oftentimes their voices go unspoken or unheard. In a society that is full of an attitude intent upon the “next-best-thing,” we must learn to slow down and listen to our youth as they try to reach out, and help them get the help that they need, whether we understand their pain or not. Life can get better, with help.