Title: Love Letters to the Dead
Author: Ava Dellaira
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
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.
I will happily admit that I was first interested in this book because I saw the cover and pretty much fell in love with it. The summary definitely pulled me in once I read it, but it was that cover that I kept coming back to in the end. Luckily for me, this is one case of a pretty cover not failing me – I pretty much loved this book after staying up past four in the morning to finish it.
From the very beginning of this story, I was engaged. There’s plenty that you don’t know about Laurel and why her sister died and why her family and life in general seem to be in such shambles. All you really know is that Laurel is quite alone and that her English assignment (to write to a dead person) is the first step in her journey to fixing herself and her life. All of her letters are addressed to specific people for specific reasons and I felt like I was learning about each dead person as well as Laurel.
The main purpose of this book is Laurel’s journey to feeling better and whole. I kept reading the book to see how Laurel could put her life back together and why it felt apart in the first place (mainly, why her sister died). It’s quite similar to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, really (which is fitting, since the author of that book is quoted on the cover of Love Letters to the Dead and he was apparently the mentor of the Ava Dellaira at a writing workshop), with the way it chronicles Laurel’s freshman year of high school as she makes friends and grows.
There are plenty of interesting characters in this book, from Laurel’s new friends to her family to the very people she’s writing to, who really do feel like real characters even though they’re all dead. At the beginning of the book, Laurel first begins to connect with two other freshman girls that have their own complicated relationship (yay for unexpected lesbian/bisexual (not quite sure) characters!), and she also bonds with some upperclassmen. Again, I was reminded so much of the friends that Charlie made in Perks of Being a Wallflower. The many people that Laurel wrote to were interesting in themselves because Laurel’s letters made it clear why she addressed each letter to each person, and I kept putting the book down to Google all the people so that I could learn even more about them.
And May is definitely a character whose life is explored in the book, even though she’s not alive. I initially worried that she would be the stereotypical “wild child older sister” that pops up too often in contemporary books for my taste, but I really do feel that her character was fleshed out to the point where she seemed as real and alive as her younger sister.
The town that Laurel lived in felt as sad and dead as her family seemed at the beginning. I can’t remember where it took place exactly – somewhere near California but a different state, like Nevada or Utah or something? – but there were times where it felt like it took place in a different time, like it was at least from the 90s just like Perks (but it definitely wasn’t, because Heath Ledger and Amy Winehouse were two of the dead people she talked to, and they both died in the past 5-10 years).
The Adult Situation
Laurel’s broken family is made up of her father who seems to no longer have any purpose other than going to work and sometimes interacting with his one remaining daughter, her mother who left for California after not being able to deal with her oldest daughter’s death, and her mother’s sister, who now has partial custody of Laurel every other week but doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with her niece. They all get the chance to grow and change throughout the book as they come to terms with May’s death and their family as it is now. They’re all kind of checked out from life and therefore don’t watch over Laurel too much, but it didn’t seem like a trope being used to help Laurel get away with fun teenage adventures, it felt like a genuine reaction to the family tragedy.
I didn’t really care about the romance as much. I liked the love interest well enough and they had some nice moments together, but I was much more concerned with Laurel learning to love herself and grow than her romantic relationship with the partially broken junior boy who once knew her sister. I just didn’t feel that the story really needed a romance.
As I already mentioned, I stayed up late to finish this book. I initially wanted to read it slowly, giving myself the chance to take it all in (much like I felt with Perks, if you need another sign that I found similarities between the two), but a combination of the book being due the next day and my need to see what would happen with Laurel and her family and friends kept me turning the pages at a very steady pace late into the night. I still didn’t even fall asleep right away because I was too busy thinking about this book.
This book was practically perfect in my mind. I loved reading about all of the characters and learning more about the dead peoples of the title through Laurel’s beautiful letters. I’m very excited to see what Dellaira writes next, no matter what this is.