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Release Date: April 1, 2014
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Age Group: YA
Genres: Contemporary, romance
Pages: 327 (hardcover)
Format/Source: Hardcover, borrowed from library
Find the Book: Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository
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.
Love Letters to the Dead is written exactly the way it sounds – as a series of letters. I’ve had a disconnect from epistolary novels since I was younger, mainly because so many of them are plagued by a voice that strikes me as very juvenile. While it’s still a flawed book in some ways, Dellaira’s debut was a refreshing deviation from that norm, and that definitely enhanced my enjoyment of it. My feelings are sort of divided into two firm camps: the good and the bad of this novel. But in the end, the good does outweigh the bad, and Love Letters to the Dead is an enjoyable read.
I can’t help it – I will do anything for a good writing style. And Laurel’s voice, while slightly inconsistent at times, comes through powerfully in her simple, honest letters. It’s poetic in a way that takes you by surprise, finding the magic in ordinary spaces and transforming it. It knows what it’s doing, and it is quietly beautiful. It reads quickly and pleasantly. In fact, if I weren’t such a stickler for well-done prose, I might not have noticed it at all. It doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is, and I know that any reader of contemporary YA can appreciate that. It takes the shapes of people and holds them up to the light. I admit that it took me a while to warm to this style’s quirks, but once I got into it, I was enthralled. This was the main factor in my four-star rating, because a book’s writing style is such a large part of whether I like it.
I was intrigued by the supporting characters. Laurel’s parents and her aunt, each coping with their grief over May in very different ways. Tristan and Kristen, the so-in-love boy and his girlfriend who also know they must break. Natalie and Hannah, Laurel’s friends who know they’re in love but don’t know what to do about it. (Natalie and Hannah were actually my biggest ship in the book.) I loved learning more about these people, and I loved how realistic they were. They held up the book’s plot – or lack thereof – so that the storyline wasn’t really first and foremost on my mind. The only problem I had was their inexplicable, instant acceptance of Laurel, whose flaws I’m discussing in the “bad” section.
I adored the portrayal of May throughout. May is, in my mind, an odd combination of Ruby from Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls and Margo from John Green’s Paper Towns. (Both are wonderful books, by the way.) May is being idealized by someone close to her, and this ends up hurting everyone. Laurel’s initial I have to be like May mentality is heartbreaking, and May’s personality is a force of nature, even when told through flashbacks. It’s obvious that these sisters had a very complicated relationship, and Dellaira’s handling of that relationship is superb.
I really liked the fact that this wasn’t an “issue book”. It certainly covers a hugely important topic, but it doesn’t overemphasize it or preach about it. Issue books definitely have their place in contemporary YA, and it’s a vital place that should be recognized and respected. But I feel that if Love Letters to the Dead tried to squeeze into that place, it would fall flat. I appreciated that Dellaira knew how far to the take the issue in this instance, and that’s a powerful testament to her skills as an author.
Laurel made less of an impression on me. This is a shame, because too many YA books I’ve read recently have supporting characters who are more interesting than the protagonist. Laurel certainly does grow and change throughout the book, coming to terms with many of the loose ends in her life. That development was traceable, and it worked pretty well. But the one thing that I wanted her to grow out of the most, her lack of independence, stubbornly remained the same. She spends much of the story following her friends around and doing illegal things just because they are, with no real sense of why she’s drinking and going to parties. Much of the abuse she suffers could be avoided if she just took control of her own life and steered herself away from these activities. Laurel may have some of the most lovely writing I’ve come across in ages, but she’s pretty darn spineless.
Sky (the reason for the “falling in love” mentioned in the synopsis) was also a letdown for me. Reason? He’s a jerk and Laurel refuses to see that. I could not ship this ship. From the beginning, Sky and Laurel’s relationship seems contrived – she likes him without knowing anything about him beyond the fact that he’s cute and mysterious. The chemistry really isn’t there, and I could feel myself thinking insta-love every time I read that they were sharing a glance or some such thing. Then – although I’ll try not to spoil anything – the two go through all of this horribly angsty I love you so I’m leaving you stuff, and this, frankly, doesn’t make any sense. I wanted to shake my fist at Laurel and say “See? He doesn’t deserve you if he’s going to treat you like that.” But unfortunately, she falls prey to his looks and his “steady driving” (yeah, that was a thing) time and again, which left me annoyed.
All in All:
Despite the shortcomings mentioned above, Love Letters to the Dead is really a special debut. I’ve done a monstrous amount of analysis and nitpicking in this review, and my feelings are definitely mixed. But do give it a shot, because it is meaningful and imperfect and eye-opening. It has a great deal of courage, and I can admire that.