Today, I'm reviewing the quiet and beautiful Love Letters to the Dead. It's a beautifully tragic debut from talented new voice Ava Dellaria, and I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to read it.
Hardcover, 323 pages
Expected publication: April 1st 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
Format read: E-ARC via publisher
Synopsis via publisher:
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.
It definitely sounded like a unique story from the synopsis, but I just wasn't sure how a novel completely centered on a girl writing to deceased icons would work. How exactly does a person develop an character arc that way? But then I began reading. Slowly and surely, I was sucked into the quietly thoughtful world of Laurel.
After she's asked to pen a letter to a deceased icon in her freshman English class, Laurel decides to choose Kurt Cobain. He's a tragic and eternal figure who died young, just as Laurel's sister May did. But long after the assignment's due date, Laurel continues writing to other figures, not only sharing the details of her day-to-day life, but also the events that led up to May's untimely death.
Love Letters to the Dead is a one-sided epistolary novel, but it's narrated through such a unique voice, it absolutely works. Dellaria's Laurel is shy, but also thoughtfully reflects on the events of her life - including the tragedies that have hit her family over the past several years -in a way that is so frank and unassuming, readers will likely feel like they're reading the uncensored journal of a close family member or friend.
Even though readers only get Laurel's limited view on the events that have touched her life, Dellaria expertly uses the letters to show how Laurel is processing those events and gradually moving through the stages of grief. At the same time, Dellaria also slowly unwinds the tale of Laurel and May for readers, to the point where when readers finally find out what has happened to May, it ends up hitting like a freight train, simply because we've grown so attached to her via Laurel.
This is one of those novels where I think it's important to avoid spoilers as much as possible, so I'll just say that I think Dellaria has written a remarkable debut novel that proves that there is still a lot of different ways to effectively communicate a story, and also a lot of ways to effectively communicate emotion in that story.
Of special note: Outside of Laurel's own journey, I think Dellaria has done a remarkable job of showing just how grief can impact (and sadly, fray) a family's bonds. It's starkly realistic, and I think that her portrayal of a family dynamic being broken, is something that a lot of people can relate to.
But this is also exactly why you should read this book. Regardless of how the book affects you on a personal level, I guarantee that it will be a very cathartic reading experience. It will make you feel a little differently about the world around you, and also encourage you to reflect on your life.
I highly recommend this book for fans of contemporary fiction, who are willing to take a risk on the type of literature they bring into their lives.
Disclaimer: I received an e-ARC of Love Letters to the Dead, in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!