Book Review: Love Letters to the Dead

Book Review: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

Love Letters to the Dead

In Love Letters to the Dead, main character Laurel starts high school six months after the death of her sister May, and is still deeply grieving her loss. Wanting a fresh start away from sympathetic comments and intrusive stares, Laurel transfers to the school on the other side of town where she knows no one and no one knows her. Friendless and alone, she tries to figure out where, if at all, she fits in, while dealing with her loss and pain as she puzzles through the events leading to May’s death.

At the start of the school year, Laurel’s English teacher gives the class a strange first assignment: Write a letter to someone who’s dead. Laurel doesn’t turn in the assignment, but she does write the letter — to Kurt Cobain — and then, finding it an outlet for her inner turmoil, she keeps writing. Letters follow letters, and Laurel fills up a notebook with letters to dead people: She writes not just to Kurt Cobain, but also to River Phoenix, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Amelia Earhart, and more.

Meanwhile, Laurel slowly finds her way, making two good friends, Hannah and Natalie, and attracting the eye of the cute boy she’s noticed. Sky is a junior, cool enough that everyone seems to like him, but not interested in being part of the popular crowd. Sky seems to be wounded in some way as well, and bit by bit the two are drawn together. But Laurel keeps the story of her loss to herself, and by keeping her pain separate, also keeps a big chunk of herself from the people who care about her. Meanwhile, her home life is silent and painful, as her mother has moved away, her father is withdrawn and depressed, and her aunt, with whom she lives part-time, is a lonely religious nut with a Mr. Ed obsession. Laurel blames herself for her family’s disintegration, but through the power of her new-found friendships and her self-expression via her letters to the dead, she finally starts to come to terms with what happened and to realize that in order to move forward, she has to let go of the past.

Love Letters to the Dead is almost unbearably sad. Laurel’s pain blazes off the page, and her self-loathing and blame are awful yet totally believable. As readers, we don’t know at first exactly what happened to May or how she died — but as the pieces come together, we come to realize that there are layers upon layers of contributing factors, and that while each family member blames him or herself in some way, the sad fact remains that May’s death was simply a terrible accident capping off a long period of unfortunate events.

Meanwhile, no one here gets by unscathed. The supporting characters also go through tremendous challenges and pain. Secret love, public shame, an abusive home life, mental health challenges, and simple neglect factor into the characters’ lives. They skip school, they drink, they make poor choices and take dangerous risks — so that the fact that they all emerge at the end of the year in relatively good shape, and better off than they started, is rather remarkable. Bad things happen — a lot — and while the characters are all interesting, well-drawn, and sympathetic, it does start to feel like an overdose of trauma after a while.

Laurel’s voice is interesting, as she wades through the jumbled mess of her thoughts and emotions and tries to make sense of all that has happened. It’s moving and melancholy to see her reflections on her relationship with May and how her worship of her big sister prevents her from facing the truth. Laurel adored her big sister all her life, and always thought of May as magical, with a perfect life, completely happy, enchanting everyone who came into her orbit. Over the course of the year covered in Love Letters to the Dead, Laurel confronts the truth about May’s life and challenges, how May’s actions led to tragic consequences for each of them, and comes to a place where she can remember May with love and regret, but freed from the need to idolize or over-glamorize her poor lost sister.

In many ways, this book succeeds in showing one girl’s transformative year, and the power of self-expression to free oneself from the walls created within. But at the same time, I did feel that the construct of the book is flawed, and takes away from the ring of authenticity for which the author seems to be striving.

Writing letters to famous dead people just doesn’t really work as an overarching concept. The portions of the letters addressed to the individuals don’t ring true,  and are actually a distraction from the character’s journey. Do we need to see her lecturing Kurt Cobain on what his suicide would have meant to his daughter? Or telling River Phoenix why she thinks his life turned out the way it did? For these two and several others, Laurel’s writing sounds presumptuous and like a stretch outside of what the character might do or say. Each time this happened, I felt pulled out of the narrative of Laurel’s story and reminded of the fact that I was reading about a fictional character, rather than continuing to be absorbed by the events and emotions of the book.

So my reaction to this book is truly 50/50: It’s powerful and sad, and conveys a great deal about loss and healing, friendship and honesty, pain and love. At the same time, the tone of the book is uneven, and ultimately a good and moving story is weighed down by the structure used to tell it.

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The details:

Title: Love Letters to the Dead
Author: Ava Dellaira
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: April 1, 2014
Length: 323 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Review copy courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux via NetGalley

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