Booklicious: Booklicious Reviews: Love Letters to the Dead

April 01, 2014


                   { A SARAH GORR REVIEW }

In Ava Dellaira’s Love Letters to the Dead, Laurel is 14 years old, entering high school, and dealing with the sudden loss of her older sister, May. Given an English assignment to write a letter to a dead person, and, unsure who else to turn to, Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain. Before long, she’s filled her notebook with letters to people who aren’t here anymore-—and who went too soon. As she goes through freshman year without her sister, Laurel regularly writes to Kurt, Amy Winehouse, Amelia Earhart, Judy Garland, and others, seeking to make sense of her splintering family, her first love, and her own grief.

On the face of it, I can imagine myself loving this book at 13 or 14. When I was a kid, and into my teens and even college years, my literature of choice always had a dark streak. I never went for comedies. I never picked up romance. Never read a Baby-sitters Club or a Sweet Valley High. If it wasn’t Harry Potter, it was dark (and even Potter got a bit bleak toward the end). I read books about skinheads (Skin Deep), ghosts (The Doll in the Garden), murder (When Dad Killed Mom; Monster), depression (Cut). It’s easy to see that Love Letters to the Dead would have fit in by its title alone.

But more than that, I can see myself connecting to Laurel’s loneliness and her uncertainty about who she is without her sister. The figures she looks to remind me of those I looked to when I was that age. Her inability to grapple with powerful emotions is something I would have gravitated toward and empathized with.

But I don’t feel any of these things now. Love Letters to the Dead simply did not resonate with me the way other young adult books have, regardless of how far removed from my teenage years I was when I read them.

I think the book’s main problem is a combination of the writing and the book’s structure. Throughout the novel, Dellaira regularly sacrifices Laurel’s voice for the sake of pretty writing. It’s not that I think the writing can’t be pretty if we’re to believe a teenage girl wrote it; it’s more that the beauty of certain wording or turns of phrase is jarringly adult in comparison to the character Dellaira has created. It’s clear Laurel is meant to have a knack for writing, and in portions of the book this shines through, where Laurel’s voice as an average 14-year-old girl is intact and her talent is clear and the writing is sharp. But there are many sections that just don’t work in this kind of diary format.

At the end of the day, as interesting a concept as this take on the epistolary novel is, I found myself wishing Dellaira had abandoned it. I think the format really hindered her, to the novel’s detriment.

Overall, I think the book is a relatively solid read and a decent first effort by Dellaira, but this is definitely one best left to the kids.

Love Letters to the Dead is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and goes on sale today.


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