When Reason Breaks is the debut novel of Cindy L. Rodriguez, an important new voice in young adult literature. Set in the present, this story is about two girls and their English teacher, all of whose names have the initials E.D., and all of whom grapple with suicide and the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
Emily Delgado is the compliant daughter of a conservative Latino politician and a member of a close-knit circle of friends. While the family’s place of origin is not specified, the setting of the novel somewhere in Connecticut and the food and drink hint that they are Puerto Rican. Emily and her brother, Austin, speak with their parents in Spanish as well as English and the code switching is seamless—no awkward translations in narrative or dialogue and no need for a glossary.
“Mami, are you going to say anything?”
“Que quieres que te diga?” she asked.
“I don’t know, something, anything to help me out here.”
“You’re old enough to fight your own battles,” said Mamá.
Emily’s Anglo counterpart, Elizabeth Davis, is a defiant Goth whose anger and previous suicide attempts have led her to become isolated and labeled. In many ways, she is the opposite of Emily, but assigned to work together on an English project, the two forge a fragile connection.
At the beginning of the novel, one of the girls attempts suicide and the other one along with Ms. Emilia Diaz tries to save her. But we don’t know which teenager sought to take her life on that Saturday morning in March. Rodriguez keeps us guessing until the very end, and in doing so, she explores the pressures the girls face and how depression works independently of how the girls may be treated by others. The smoothly executed dual narrative—in close third person alternating between Emily and Elizabeth’s perspectives, interspersed with letters written to Ms. Diaz—serves this story line well. Readers observe the journey both Emily and Elizabeth take over the course of eight months, a journey that leads each of them to the breaking point. In truth, either one of them could have been the one to take her life.
Within this thoughtful and compelling story are a full cast of secondary characters, among them Emily’s boyfriend, Kevin, whose parents are two dads. Kevin’s parents are not an “issue” of this novel but rather part of the community just like everyone else.
Secondary characters have played an important role in many young adult novels that explore suicide, as they are the ones left behind to ask “why?” A number of novels, most notably Jay Asher’s best-selling Thirteen Reasons Why, place at least some blame on those secondary characters. And while bullying and other forms of abuse and cruelty can contribute to a young person’s decision to commit suicide, many people who commit suicide are loved and treated well, but they suffer from depression. Teens and the adults in their lives must learn to recognize the signs of depression and know how they can help their family member or friend.
When Reason Breaks builds awareness by creating characters—both main and secondary—about whom the reader cares. And through her complex, realistic, and sympathetic characters, Rodriguez addresses another prejudice that needs to be overcome—that of mental illness, so people young and old who experience depression can come forward and be assured of the understanding and support of family, friends, and neighbors. When Reason Breaks is highly recommended.
A shorter version of this review appeared on The Pirate Tree (www.thepiratetree.com).