10:30 am EST, January 31, 2018

‘This Is Not a Love Letter’ book review: A journey of discovery and hope

This Is Not a Love Letter by Kim Purcell delivers a little of the romance its title rejects, but it also delivers complex characters, vivid emotions, and a journey that will surprise readers with its candor and hope.

About ‘This Is Not a Love Letter’ by Kim Purcell

One week. That’s all Jessie said. A one-week break to get some perspective before graduation, before she and her boyfriend, Chris, would have to make all the big, scary decisions about their future — decisions they had been fighting about for weeks.

Then, Chris vanishes. The police think he’s run away, but Jessie doesn’t believe it. Chris is popular and good-looking, about to head off to college on a full-ride baseball scholarship. And he disappeared while going for a run along the river — the same place where some boys from the rival high school beat him up just three weeks ago. Chris is one of the only black kids in a depressed paper mill town, and Jessie is terrified of what might have happened.

As the police are spurred to reluctant action, Jessie and others speak up about the harassment Chris experienced and the danger he could be in. But there are people in Jessie’s town who are infuriated by the suggestion that a boy like Chris would be a target of violence. They smear Chris’s character and Jessie begins receiving frightening threats.

Every Friday since they started dating, Chris has written Jessie a love letter. Now Jessie is writing Chris a letter of her own to tell him everything that’s happening while he’s gone. As Jessie searches for answers, she must face her fears, her guilt, and a past more complicated than she would like to admit

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this is not a love letter by kim purcell

‘This Is Not a Love Letter’ book review

I started reading This Is Not a Love Letter thinking it would be a light read: a little romance, a little mystery. It certainly had a little romance and a little mystery, but the book brought so much more.

It tackles the dynamics of interracial relationships. It addresses mental health, bullying, and friendships.

None of these topics felt heavy-handed or preachy. They just felt like part of Jessie’s experience, which drives this story. Her character and her emotions bring immediacy to the action. She feels relatable and trustworthy. Purcell builds her not only as someone to identify with, but someone who can lead us through this intense journey.

The other characters that populate Jessie’s world were just as wonderful to experience. All the details Jessie reveals about Chris — to his friends, to the police, and to the reader — bring him to life, even as we’re unsure if he’s actually still alive.

Jessie’s best friend, Steph, was one of my favorite characters in this book. She’s a clear foil to Jessie. She grounds Jessie in moments and elevates her in others. She’s the kind of friend you’d want to bake cookies with, but also the kind of friend you can rely on during hard times. I loved getting to know her.

this is not a love letter by kim purcell

Purcell tells these characters’ stories with vivid emotions. The book starts with a staccato rhythm. Jessie’s increasingly frantic desire to find Chris hurls the book forward. Each sentence adds more anxiety to the situation. I could feel it coming off the page. Among the anxiety are many other emotions — sadness, love, and hope all color Jessie’s world. You can feel exactly what Jessie is feeling at every moment.

Jessie’s search for Chris in the book ends up being a psychological journey, just us much as a physical one. It allows Jessie to take inventory of herself and her life experiences. It allows her to understand Chris on an even deeper level. She learns more about him, even as it feels like finding him might slip away from her.

The format of the book adds to that outcome. Jessie addresses Chris throughout the book as she writes her mental letter to him. As she says “you,” it feels like Jessie is addressing the reader with her letter. Where are we? What are we feeling? It takes the reader on that journey of discovery with her. I felt compelled to find answers to Jessie’s questions and take an inventory of my own experiences.

This Is Not a Love Letter wasn’t a light read. It put a heavy weight onto Jessie, who shared those feelings with Chris and the readers. The weight of the novel’s climax was balanced with the hope and freedom Purcell gives in the last few chapters. All the pressure built up over the last few hundred pages dissipates as Jessie turns her focus toward the future. It made me hopeful for her, but also for myself.

I left this book feeling like a different person. I’ll keep Jessie and Chris with me for a long time. I think you will, too, if you give the book a chance.

‘This Is Not a Love Letter’ is available now

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