Book Review: Love Letters to the Dead
By: Ava Dellaira
Published By: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux
Publication Date: April 1, 2014
Page Count: 323
Source: ARC Kindly Provided by Publisher via NetGalley
Audience: Young Adult - Contemporary, Grief
I really enjoyed this novel because it was different. I haven't seen too many epistolary novels for teens. In fact, off the top of my head, the only one I can ever recall having read is Dracula. It's difficult to immerse yourself in a character when you're only getting their thoughts via letter. I was worried that only knowing Laurel's perspective would hold me back while reading, but I found that this novel was extremely powerful and exquisitely written.
Laurel and her family are still reeling from the unexpected death of her older sister, May. May was everything Laurel wanted to be and now that she's gone, May doesn't know who she is anymore. She switches schools and cuts off all of her old friends. Laurel craves a fresh start, but she can't seem to leave the past behind her. An assignment in English class gives her the outlet she needs to begin to heal from her sister's death. Laurel explains, "Mrs. Buster gave us our first assignment in English today, to write a letter to a dead person. As if the letter could reach you in heaven, or at the post office for ghosts" (Kindle Location 12). I found the concept of mortality to be poignant in this one. Laurel often poses important thoughts and questions. One such moment resonated with me when Laurel writes, "I wish you could tell me where you are now. I mean, I know you're dead, but I think that there must be something in a human being that can't just disappear" (Kindle Location 91). I like to think that there is something left of us after we pass on.
I loved that Laurel spent the novel writing to the dead. Not only did I learn some interesting tidbits about some of the people she chose to write to, but each person helped Laurel learn something more about herself. I liked the mix of people that Laurel chose to write to throughout the novel. One moment she'd be writing to Kurt Cobain and the next letter would skip to someone like Amelia Earhart. I was fascinated by the sorts of people that Laurel felt compelled to write to about her life. I also found that learning about Laurel through this mode wasn't as difficult as I had imagined before I began reading. Laurel's pain and joy are palpable and ooze from the page. This novel made me stop to savor the language and to ponder the concepts. I found myself becoming overwhelmed by the amount of thought and emotion this novel took. I would have to put it down just to digest everything that was swimming around in my brain. Love Letters to the Dead moved me to tears on more than one occasion.
I don't always provide quotations in reviews, but I loved the language of this one so much I decided I had to this time:
~ "His voice sounded like gravel turning to grains of sugar." (Kindle Location 231)
~ "He reached out and took my face in his hands. 'You're beautiful,' he whispered. I closed my eyes and let him pull me in. It was a perfect first kiss, like a gust of wind that swept through me, taking my breath away and letting me breath again all at once. A kiss to come alive in." (Kindle Location 855)
~ "The thing about traditions is that they hold up the shape of your memory." (Kindle Location 1500
I could go on and on about all of the segments I marked on my Kindle. It is a true testament to Dellaira's writing that she kept me mesmerized with her words. Seriously, I have a major crush on the writing.
Love Letters to the Dead is an important novel that focuses on some difficult issues. Grief is one of those things that can often be all encompassing. I feel like this one could open up avenues of conversation between teens and their parents. I do offer a word of caution - there are some moments with language, intimacy, abuse, and drug/alcohol use. Due to these items, I wouldn't recommend it to younger teens.
One Last Gripe: It's not a true gripe, but I was so overwhelmed with emotions while reading this one that I had to put it down a lot so it took me longer to read than a 300ish page novel typically would. That didn't lessen my enjoyment, but this one is definitely heavy.
My Favorite Thing About This Book: Laurel's evolving view of the world and herself
First Sentence: Mrs. Buster gave us our first assignment in English today, to write a letter to a dead person.
Favorite Character: Laurel
Least Favorite Character: Francesca
It begins as an assignment for English class: Write a letter to a dead person. Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain because her sister, May, loved him. And he died young, just like May did. Soon, Laurel has a notebook full of letters to people like Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Amelia Earhart, Heath Ledger, and more; though she never gives a single one of them to her teacher. She writes about starting high school, navigating new friendships, falling in love for the first time, learning to live with her splintering family. And, finally, about the abuse she suffered while May was supposed to be looking out for her. Only then, once Laurel has written down the truth about what happened to herself, can she truly begin to accept what happened to May. And only when Laurel has begun to see her sister as the person she was; lovely and amazing and deeply flawed; can she begin to discover her own path.