Review of LOVE LETTERS TO THE DEAD by AVA DELLAIRA
(review based on an advance reading copy)
The title of this book summarizes the premise. For an English class assignment, Laurel has to write a letter to a dead person. However, rather than handing in her finished letter Laurel continues composing letter after letter to dead people she admires as her own kind of therapeutic journaling. “Letters to the dead” might sound a little gimmicky, but Dellaira makes it so much more than that.
Laurel’s story unfolds in these letters, rather than chapters, each one averaging 1-5 pages. She writes to Kurt Cobain, Amelia Earhart, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison, and many others. Part of why the letter structure doesn’t feel too gimmicky is how Dellaira does tie Laurel’s thoughts and problems back to the specific people she selects for each letter. It doesn’t take much observation skill to quickly deduce that Laurel locks her emotions away and doesn’t communicate them to others. Before I even understood why, I saw how these letters served as a lifeline for someone who can’t voice what she wants to say but needs an outlet.
This story feels remarkably real, mostly because the characters feel like real people. I had no difficulty imagining Laurel as a living, breathing teenager somewhere. Thoughts, family, friends, romance: it all felt rather convoluted and all the more realistic for the complications. We learn early on that Laurel’s older sister May died less than a year ago and then her family fell apart. Her parents divorced, her mother moved away, and her father slipped into depression. We don’t know why yet, but Laurel also blames herself for May’s death.
Laurel’s not the only one who feels real. All of her friends become more than the quick labels a lazy author might utilize. Quick label for Natalie and Hannah: lesbians. But if you asked Natalie who she’s attracted to I bet she would say “Hannah” rather than “girls”; she only has eyes for Hannah and demonstrates a fierce devotion despite some mistreatment. Hannah, on the other hand, shies away from that label and, though she’ll kiss and cuddle Natalie in private, in public she parades around with a steady stream of unsuitable boyfriends. Hannah also has a few complications at home that emerge more as the story progresses. Then there’s Laurel’s love interest Sky. Quick label for Sky: bad boy. Except he’s the most mature bad boy I’ve ever known! I don’t have any of the common bad boy gravitation, but I came to love Sky for his level head. He really grounds the novel. When Laurel romanticizes her dead sister, he calls her on it. When she behaves recklessly, he calls her on it. When she won’t communicate her emotions, he calls her on it. I also admired the progression of their romance. It’s unusual for fiction but extremely common in real life.
I had two predictions about the book and both turned out to be true, but I didn’t hold either against the novel. The first I forgave because the truth still skewed a little away from my exact guess and Dellaira also sidestepped my fear that a reveal would be milked for melodrama. The second had to do with predicting something about the ending early on, but if the ending’s predictable it’s because that’s the way the book is meant to end. It felt right.
I have a lot of praise for this novel and few criticisms. The first comes down to taste. At times, I found it too sad for me. I never liked the book any less for being sad, but I did literally have to set it down for a few weeks when I needed a break from how intensely I empathized with a very troubled person. Second, I worried the book might romanticize depression. That fear abated as I continued reading and came to the realization that Laurel, not the novel, romanticizes depression and overcoming that is part of her own personal growth. Third and final, the instances are few and far between but here and there the writing felt a little forced. A phrase might be quite beautiful, but it would feel extremely “writer-ly” and not in keeping with Laurel’s voice.
Laurel grows and changes immensely over the course of the book. She even sees the people she’s writing to in different lights as her perspective shifts, which elevates the letters-to-dead-people hook far above gimmicky. LOVE LETTERS TO THE DEAD is truly an extraordinary novel.