ARC Review: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira


title:  Love Letters to the Dead

author:  Ava Dellaira

pages: 323

format: Paperback

isbn/asin: 978-0374346676

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 5/5 [in the genre] or 9/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  Fans of John Green (Looking for Alaska, The Fault in Our Stars), Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), and Tess Sharpe (Far From You).  [Trigger warning] 

will i read this author again?:  Yes, can I have it now? 
will i continue the series?:  N/A

My Ratings Explained

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.

take home message
Love Letters heralds a new god in fiction.  Deeply poignant, reliant on interest in humans rather than mysteries or monsters, it follows one remarkable girl on a journey of healing, letting go, and learning to be herself.  And it manages to avoid the groaning cliches that often go alongside that.  

the basics
For some reason, it took me a beat to really mesh with this book.  I blame the hype.  When a book is touted by Stephen Chbosky, Jay Asher, Laurie Halse Anderson, Gayle Forman, and Lauren Myracle...well, I found myself clinging to each detail, expecting the same perfection as Perks of Being a Wallflower.  Then I let myself open up to the story, and Love Letters stole my breath.  In a collection of variously simple and starkly profound letters, Dellaira tells the story of a broken girl grasping for her shattered idols--inevitably discovering the cracks in the idols, and through this, finding her own strength.  Laurel's voice is a sweet mix of lingering naivete and too-soon maturity.  Her friends and family are captured as truly real in themselves, not props but players in a mad act.  And the letters themselves juxtapose the tragedies of idols past with the tragedy of May, both illuminating Laurel's idolatry of her sister and cleverly showing the progression of Laurel's understanding.  It's a book of tragedies and first loves.  Of the fears that slice between people.  Dellaira, in striking deep into the heart of tough issues and baring them bald, has created a truly real tale of heartache and redemption.  

Warning: This will be a long review.  

plot . 5/5
Write a letter to a dead person.  An easy assignment, charged with extra layers for Laurel.  We know that she's lost her sister.  That she's living between her dad's house and her aunt's; her mother has run off to California.  That she's starting over at a new school where memories can't touch her.  Or, that's the hope.  The plot lazes along between present day and flashbacks--not slow-paced or boring, but languid, as a dream.  Laurel meets Natalie and Hannah, Tristen and Kristen, people who accept her immediately despite her quietness and secrets.  People who also have their own problems, which get as much well-deserved space as Laurel's.  It's a life book.  A plot of normal things made extraordinary by Dellaira's writing.  Some events were maybe too Wallflower-esque (the letter burning), but Dellaira made them her own.  

The first layer of plot is simply Laurel and her friends learning how to be, by themselves and with each other.  Laurel's first shy romance with Sky.  Two of Laurels friends struggling between love and propriety.  Two others dealing with their own upcoming loss.  The other layer is family.  Laurel feeling her mother's abandonment, her father's devastation, her aunt's struggle to be strong when her own heart is breaking.  Then there is May.  The diary-like details of the present are interwoven with memories of Laurel's childhood, beginning with the fairy tale happiness and slowly winding towards the dark final days that lingered at the back of my mind and pulled me along with morbid fascination.  It's not an adventurous plot.  There's no murder mystery, no crazy happenings.  It's a series of events in the life of a troubled highschooler, and her slow progress towards peace.   

concept . 4/5
The epistolary is not new.  Chbosky did it.  I could probably name others once the ibuprofen kicks in.  It's a used concept.  Dellaira freshens it up by having Laurel write her letters to a variety of dead people--specifically, famous people, specifically famous people who died tragic and untimely deaths.  I mean, I'll admit.  I saw Kurt Cobain and a bit of my heart was already on Dellaira's side.  This format has two fantastic effects.  One, in writing to these people instead of to May, Laurel reveals her feelings for her sister more slowly, and also reveals her ambivalence about her sister long before she admits it.  Two, the tragic lives of these figures are a fitting comparison to May's, and it allows Laurel to first be angry at them and realize their faults before she's ready to recognize May's.  

Then, there were two pieces that didn't work.  One was the extensive exposition about each dead person; literally, Laurel telling them about their own lives.  Helpful if you weren't familiar with the person, but ultimately ripped me out of the story and became annoying.  Second problem was something I identified back when this book was a blurb.   Kurt Cobain, River Phoenix, and Amy Winehouse work.  They're 27 Club.  They're modern and mixed-up and tragic.  They're druggies and misunderstood teen idols.  However, Amelia Earhart, Elizabeth Bishop, and Allen Lane don't work.  They're a different breed.  They seem to be convenient rather than strictly foils for May.  I definitely didn't feel as much power from their letters.  

characters . 5/5
The characters feel like real memories from Dellaira's head.  Laurel is half naive, half mature, clinging to childhood and forced into the future.  She's afraid to face her own fears, and this is a problem that drives her narrative and affects everyone around her.  She's also endearing from the start.  Her closest friends, Hannah and Natalie, are quirky in a way book characters can be, but not far off from someone you might have known in high school.  Burnouts.  Dreamers without a cause.  People with their own secrets.  Sky as love interest is very similar, with a bit of the mysterious bad boy appeal without all the cliched trappings.  He's also not afraid to stand his ground or call Laurel on her bullshit.  Then there's family.  Instead of being far-off parental figures, Laurel's mom and are given their own unique pain and plots.  Her dad, the lapsed jokester, bereft.  Her mom, fleeing her pain to the ocean.  Then Aunt Amy, lovelorn spinster struggling for meaning in God.  And May.  Beautiful, broken May.  Dellaira could easily have written a book about any of these people.  

style . 5/5
The style is a balm that eased most of my complaints.  Dellaira is just so damn talented.  She manages a rare feat, which is being poetic and poignant while still staying within the scope of what a teenager might say.  It requires her to be clever with her metaphors and musings.  In the end, some of those simpler statements feel as profound as anything more "adult."  She truly has a grasp of language and atmosphere that's often sought and rarely achieved.  I'd read her prose without a plot.  

mechanics . 5/5
Letters or diaries can be annoying.  You miss pieces in between.  You're starting over in every section.  Dellaira uses these features to her advantage.  You don't need to know everything that happened between letters.  Laurel gives you the important bits; your brain fills in the rest.  And for a book with an easy-moving plot, it feels fast.  Maybe some would be bored; I never was.  There's always something happening, some drama, some worry, even if it's not explosive.  My favorite?  The epilogue.  It's a clever and very necessary touch that wraps the whole story together.  

Note: I received this copy in exchange for a review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.

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