Review: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

Monday, March 10, 2014
Title: Love Letters to the Dead
Author: Ava Dellaira
Genre: contemporary, young adult
Series: N/A
Pages: 323 (print ARC edition)
Published: expected April 1 2014
Source: sent from MacMillan for review
Rating: 4/5

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.

 "Maybe, when we can tell the story, however bad they are, we don't belong to them anymore. They become ours. Maybe that's what growing up really means is knowing that you don't have to just be a character going whichever way the story goes. It's knowing you could be the author instead."
p. 301 (ARC)

Love Letters to the Dead is a different kind of novel, for a couple reasons. For one, it's relayed entirely in epistolary form, the eponymous letters from main character and narrator Laurel to dead musicians/poets/sings/pilots/actors. It's also a mix of Hilary T. Smith's brilliant Wild Awake and Nova Ren Suma's ethereal Imaginary Girls. It's a wonderful, difficult story. One full of heart, heartbreak, love, grief, and able to evoke the same emotions in its readers. 

Laurel lost her sister May, nearly a year ago. Since then, she's been adrift -- a new school, new friends, splitting her time between her dad and her aunt -- searching for the part of herself she lost when her sister died. Laurel really got to me. She is a mess; full of anger, grief, loneliness, guilt, life. So much of who she was was defined by May, and May's wants. Like a lot of younger sisters, she wanted to be May. She wanted May to think she was cool, be her friend, include her. She idolized her and she idealized her and when things fall apart, so does every part of Laurel. For a character that has so much insight into dead famous people, she has remarkably little insight into herself.

Even though May is never alive on the page, after Laurel she is the most important character in the novel. We only view her through Laurel's eyes and memories (and once through Sky's), so the presentation of her is hardly unbiased or realistic. The relationship between the two girls was close -- almost unbelievably so -- so it's hard to judge either girl without the influence the other had on her. This blurring of the edges, the possibility that all (including May herself) is not as Laurel remembers. is where Love Letters to the Dead really reminded me of Imaginary Girls. Like Ruby, May is larger than life, magical in a mundane world of cars and cellphone. She has a hold on her sister, for good or ill, and that influence affects every aspect of both stories.

I loved the writing in Love Letters to the Dead. It's not splashy or actiontastic, but quiet and meaningful. You get the sense that everything Laurel feels can be found in her narration and writing. Laurel's voice is strong and authentic, but it is the writing that really sold me. Ava Dellaira has a less flashy style, but her prose is strong and moving. I felt the things Laurel felt, and I cheered for her triumphs and cried for her mistakes and grief. She is a smartly-crafted character. One who can be vulnerable or strong, angry and defiant. This is an author that really knows how to write an authentic female teenage perspective, one with all the angst and pain, and make it utterly relate-able to any reader.

I did wish for a little more definition for the rest of the cast. No one is as realized as Laurel, but her friends come closest. I can't say I got to know Natalie/Hannah/Kristen/Tristan/Janey very well, but they were likeable. Sky, as Laurel's love interest, was also well-handled, if still not as characterized. I loved how their romance was handled. It wasn't perfect and it wasn't what I expected at all. Dellaira doesn't want to write the same old stories we've come to expect, and she doesn't. If all her cast can't be as fantastic as Laurel, well, this is a debut.

Love Letters to the Dead is an intense, emotional read. It's a book about love, and sisters, and friends and family. It will make you feel things. I cried several times while reading and can attest to the beauty and efficacy of Ava Dellaira as a storyteller. The writing is strong, the plot is explored meaningfully, and it will long stick out in memory.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Copyright © 2015 Ageless Pages Reviews. All Rights Reserved.

Amelia Theme by The Lovely Design CO and These Paper Hearts.