Friday, March 28, 2014
Review: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira
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.
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Source: ARC provided by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in exchange for an honest review
Love Letters to the Dead was a beautiful, and heartbreakingly honest, exploration of grief, written in a truly unique way.
I lost my mother to cancer when I was in high school. I don’t think people understand how isolating an experience that is. Other kids don’t want you death cooties rubbing off on them so they avoid you, you feel left out of conversations that discuss family dynamics (in my case my mom – but in this book the death of Laurel’s sister, May), and you end up doing this odd little conversational dance so that the topic never comes up. Going home, which should be comforting is now the last place you want to be. Dellaira nailed this feeling. So much so, I had to keep setting the book aside. It's pretty dark and intense and I needed to regroup before heading back in.
I loved how Laurel, through a class project where students write letters to a dead person, is able to explore all the pent up feelings she has over the loss of her sister and the changing dynamics of her family in the aftermath. The letters to the dead were done very well. It is a different approach but I can see how pouring your heart out to strangers who can't judge you or talk back is cathartic. The people she chose made sense in context to the story.
As much as I was captivated by Laurel’s story and Ava Dellaira’s writing, I did have a few issues.
While the letters worked in the beginning, the technique kind of stumbled towards the end. Laurel spoke to the dead person at first but then it shifted in style to informing the deceased about their own life, rather than integrating into Laurel's. Or as if she was trying to inform the reader as to who the dead person was. It became more celebrity bio than emotional cleansing.
Another aspect that didn’t quite work for me was the romance. The circumstances surrounding Sky’s role in Laurel’s life felt like unnecessarily drama filled & a little clichéd. Love Letters to the Dead explores many issues including death, drugs, alcohol, sexual assault, domestic violence, LBGT romance & this just muddied the already murky waters. Really, it would have nice to not explore so many issues in this book and give a few of these side characters their own story later. Sky plays an important part in her healing but it also seemed a little forced to make things fit in a way that pushed the story forward. I've also read this particular set up several time before. Not the authors fault - but I wish it was done differently I guess. The romance doesn't overpower the story though so it's not a big thing.
Although there were a few things that didn’t work for me, I was blown away by Dellaira’s writing and the depth she gave ALL her characters. It's hard to believe that this is a debut author. I mentioned how many different themes the author explores. She did it in a way that felt very organic and natural.
Laurel’s friends were just as interesting as her. High school is awkward and fumbling and this book captures all the highs and lows in a very authentic way.