Book Review: The How and The Why by Cynthia Hand

I found a book that made me cry! That in itself is such a rare occurrence that The How and the Why deserves more attention than it will probably get in my what is sure to be endlessly long April wrap-up 😉 But I also just really needed a break from e-university, because while isolation was pretty nice when I didn’t have any obligations, online lectures and doing homework all by myself have me rethinking how much I’m enjoying this quarantine… Anyway, since I have the perfect excuse to review this, let’s get into my thoughts – needless to say, I absolutely LOVED this book!!!

Some Basic Info:

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Title: The How and the Why

Author: Cynthia Hand

Genre: YA contemporary

Publication Date: November 5, 2019

Date Read: April 17, 2020

Rating: 5/5 Stars

Goodreads Summary:

Today Melly had us writing letters to our babies…

Cassandra McMurtrey has the best parents a girl could ask for. They’ve given Cass a life she wouldn’t trade for the world. She has everything she needs—except maybe the one thing she wants. Like, to know who she is. Where she came from. Questions her adoptive parents can’t answer, no matter how much they love her.

But eighteen years ago, someone wrote Cass a series of letters. And they may just hold the answers Cass has been searching for.

Alternating between Cass’s search for answers and letters from the pregnant teen who gave her up for adoption, this voice-driven narrative is the perfect read for fans of Nina LaCour and Jandy Nelson.

Review (spoiler-free)

This book had everything I look for in a good contemporary: fully fleshed-out characters I fell in love with immediately, great exploration of family relationships and friendships, a number of subplots that were all super-interesting, unpredictable, and intertwined masterfully, and great writing! It’s easily the best thing I have read so far this year, and it has definitely earned its place among my favorite contemporaries. I’m sure this is a book I’ll be re-reading over and over again 🙂

The Writing

There isn’t really much to say about the writing, which is a good thing. Usually, if I have a lot to say, it’s because I’m complaining 😉 Here, however, I have nothing to complain about. The writing style suited this story perfectly! The first-person present narrative really made me feel as though I was experiencing everything with the main character Cass, and it had me immersed from the get-go. And those letters! I really got to know Cass’s birth mom S. just by reading them, and I was just as invested in her storyline as in Cass’s.

Also, I think the author did a really good job giving the each of the POV characters distinctive voices – even without the different formats the two storylines were written in, you could immediately tell whose head you were in – while Cass is more cautious and thoughtful, S. was very sarcastic and funny, and I loved that contrast!

In addition to the letters, the book also includes forms that Cass’s birth parents had to fill out before her adoption – and I thoroughly enjoyed those! It made the story feel even more authentic, I learned a ton about the domestic adoption process in the US, and the forms gave so much backstory and personality to Cass’s birth family. They were a really cool addition, and I love how well they were integrated into the rest of the story!

The Characters

The characters were probably my favorite part about this book. They all felt so fleshed-out, real and complex that I couldn’t help but fall in love with them (or extremely dislike them – I’m looking at you, S.’s dad).

Even though I’m not adopted and that was the main part of this story, I identified with Cass in so many other ways. I really liked how much she loved her family and cared about her parents, so that at first, she was scared to tell them she was looking for her birth mom because she didn’t want them to think they weren’t enough for her. The horrible jokes her dad made reminded me so much of my own father. And I love how Cass could never keep any secrets from her mom.

This is also very much a growing-up story, and I really like how much thought Cass put into what she really wanted in her life. How she didn’t want to let down her parents, but also find what was the best for her, both in relation to college plans and finding out more about her roots. The way Cass reflected on these things was so relatable, and I think this book will speak to a lot of teenagers out there! And, personally, I just really loved the way one of the colleges in this book was described – it reminded me so much of my semester abroad at a liberal arts college in Virginia, so I actually found myself quite nostalgic during that part…

Furthermore, I think Cass’s passion for theater was so well explored! You could tell how important it was to her, and there were so many interesting details which made it utterly believable that she’d been doing drama for years. All those rehearsal scenes and the banter between the different drama group members reminded me of how I feel about orchestra, and that made me feel right at home 🙂

Another great thing about this book is Cass’s relationship with her best friend Nyla. Like Cass, Nyla is adopted and completely crazy about theater. From their interactions alone, you can tell that they have known each other for a long time – they know each other’s secrets, are on great terms with each other’s parents, and Cass will even turn down a chance to act with the boy she likes in a state competition because that’s always been her and Nyla’s thing. But because they’re friendship is so realistic, it’s also more complex than that. They’ve always been competitive when it comes to acting – even though they also totally support one another – and when Cass has a particularly horrible day, she takes it out on Nyla. I think this book managed to depict marvelously what friendship is like – when you know a person that well, you also know how to really hurt them, but if the friendship matters to you, you have to find a way to fix it…

And Nyla as a character was also really interesting separately from Cass. She was adopted from Liberia as a child, after her birth parents were killed in the civil war there, and I really liked learning more about that backstory. Also, it was very eye-opening to see the perspective of a young Black woman growing up in multicultural Mormon family in a predominantly white town in Idaho. As far as I can tell, this book did that background absolute justice and is an example of diversity done extremely well!

Also, speaking of Cass’s friends, I also have to give a shout-out to Bastian – he was absolutely adorable and a great addition to the friend group 😉

Finally, and obviously, there were the parents – both Cass’s adoptive parents and her biological parents, all of whom I got to know and love throughout the course of this book.

Cass’s dad is a teacher, has a horrible sense of humor, but he’s always there when his daughter needs him. And Cass’s mom is a baker who makes cupcakes, supports her daughter’s theater dreams whole-heartedly, and gives great (and embarrassing) advice when it comes to boyfriends. However, she is also in the hospital with a heart condition, and the family knows that she probably won’t make it long without a donor organ. The way the McMurtreys dealt with this was so heart-breaking and touching, and just added another layer of depth to an already great story. Honestly, there was a scene fairly early on where Cass was visiting her mom in the hospital to tell her she wanted to quit drama club so she could spend more time with her – and I was already bawling my eyes out. It was so well and tenderly written; I already knew this book was going to make a mess of me before I got to the end…

Cass’s birth mom, S., I also absolutely loved. She was snarky, outspoken, and maybe a little bit rebellious. And though she pretended not to care much about her baby in the beginning, it soon became very clear that she did. And the book really made me understand her reasons for giving Cass up. It really gave a lot of nuance to the topic of adoption, and this makes it one of my favorite dual perspective novels to date.

Also, can I just say that I really like Ted? 🙂

The Plot

This is a very character-driven book, so most of the plot also revolves around them. But we actually get a lot of different storylines, all of which are interconnected very organically.

Obviously, the main one concerns Cass quest to find out more about her birth mom. I actually learned quite a lot about adoption while reading this, and I could totally understand how frustrated Cass was after she hit dead end after dead end. And I also really liked the exploration of the relationship between Cass and her adoptive parents along the way!

Interwoven with that, about 18 years earlier, we get the story of 16-year-old S., whose father is a well-known politician and whisks his daughter off to a home for pregnant girls to keep her out of the public eye and his campaign away from scandal. I really liked learning more about S.’s backstory, her relationship with her family and Cass’s biological father, the lives of the different girls at that home… S. grew on me just as much as Cass did, and her story felt utterly real. You can definitely tell that a lot of research was put into this book!

And then there were the countless subplots – Cass’s and Nyla’s acting aspirations and their friendship, Cass’s infatuation with the new boy in their drama class, Cass’s college dreams, Cass’s mom’s sickness, and, and, and… These all contributed to create a vivid story of a girl growing up in a loving family, and, at least in my opinion, all of them were given the depth they deserved.

Overall, this was an awesome book, and definitely one of the best YA contemporaries I’ve ever read. If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend you give it a chance!

7 thoughts on “Book Review: The How and The Why by Cynthia Hand

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