Title: Love Letters to the Dead
by Ava Dellaira
Publishing Info: April 1, 2014 by Macmillan
Genres: Contemporary, Psych/Mental Health, Realistic Fiction, Young Adult
Find it on the web: Buy from Amazon // GoodreadsDate Completed: March 6, 2014
LOVE LETTERS TO THE DEAD is definitely a unique book, and one of the most original I’ve read so far this year. The book is comprised of letters to celebrities that have since passed, written by the main character Laurel. The titular letters are originally an assignment for class, but the more Laurel writes and the more she shares with these ghosts of celebrities past, the more she finally opens up about everything that’s happened in her recent past and the feelings that she hasn’t been able to share with anyone, especially since her sister’s death.
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 in this stunning debut from Ava Dellaira, Love Letters to the Dead.
Admittedly, I had a hard time with the beginning of this book. I knew that it was made up entirely of letters and yet I still had a hard time getting into the swing of the narration. Each letter (which essentially made up a chapter) was dedicated to a different person and that person had a life or an experience that directly related to what Laurel was going through at the moment. I really liked the connections and how the deceased famous person involved really brought the story together, but at times, I felt like the personal life of the celebrity was a little too detailed for my tastes. I did learn a lot about their lives and things I didn’t know before, but at the same time, it sort of took me out of Laurel’s story and put me into someone else’s when I was anxious to make more of a connection with Laurel and her life and not a celebrity that I could easily research if I had the interest.
Aside from the involvement of the lives of the once rich and famous, I just wasn’t making a connection with Laurel for a decent portion of the first part of the book. Laurel had been having an extremely difficult time with her sister’s death and rightfully so, but the ways in which she was dealing with it just kind of turned me off. Unable to remain at the same school, Laurel lives with her aunt part-time so she’s able to attend a different high school and try not to live in the shadow of her older and more charismatic sister. In a new place, Laurel makes new friends and tries new things and many of those veered toward a more cavalier and rebellious-teen lifestyle. I mean, I understand. Laurel does not have an easy life and she’s also feeling not only grief but guilt from her sister’s recent death. I understand that she may be handling that different than I would handle it and I have no issues with that but reading about the decisions that Laurel made edged on uncomfortable and made it very hard for me to connect to Laurel as well.
I apologize for the lack of eloquence here, but it was just more of a feeling as I was reading that caused a big disconnect for me during the first half of the book and it’s hard to put into words. It wasn’t something that I necessarily “frowned upon” but just a series of subject matters that aren’t usually something I connect with or thoroughly enjoy reading about. Maybe it’s the fact that I was trying to feel for Laurel who was just trying to shut off her feelings and shut out her past and that made it painful to read, causing me to feel uncomfortable. Laurel has gone through quite a bit in her life that has led her to where she is at the time of the book and it’s been a more traumatic road than we initially realize.
That being said, the second half of the book did start to come together a little bit more for me. Yes, there was a romance involved, but that wasn’t the reason why. The romance, I think, helped Laurel feel the need to open up to someone else. She finally wanted to connect with someone and finally found her voice with Sky, the attractive and mysterious boy who she finds a connection to in more ways than one. Mostly, I was incredibly curious to find out exactly how May died because the reader is in the dark most of the book since we only get to see what Laurel is willing to divulge. My issue with things that are left intentionally mysterious in contemporary stories is that I find myself “hurrying” to find out what the big reveal is. LOVE LETTERS TO THE DEAD takes on a much slower pace so with a question rattling around inside of my head, I had a hard time focusing on what I should have been reading and anxious to find out exactly what happened. I don’t mean that in a negative way — it was more of a personal issue and I just know that’s what happens when I encounter situations like those.
All said and done, I easily see the appeal and glory of LOVE LETTERS TO THE DEAD but I just had a hard time connecting with it. I feel like my review pointed out so many negatives but the positives were so subtle and the more I reflect on the book, the more I have trouble remembering what they were. The second half of the book took off for me and I think all of the answers to my burning questions helped, but overall, I may not have been the ideal audience for the book. I’ve also read books with a similar feel (see recommendations below) and have been totally amazed and not disconnected like I was with this one, so take that as you will. There was just an ineffable something that I didn’t feel when reading this book and I wish I could have fallen in love with it.
“The View from Goodreads” is a new featured section in my reviews that I decided to incorporate! I tend to update my Goodreads status a LOT when I read — reactions, feelings, notes — so I thought it would be fun to share the sort of “reading process”! All status updates are spoiler-free (no specific plot points will be revealed) but will contain reactions to certain pages and/or characters!
I’ve decided to work my character section a bit differently for this review. I had so much to say in the general review section that I wanted to talk about the characters completely separately.
Hannah & Natalie // Relation to Laurel: New friends.
Hannah and Natalie are Laurel’s first friends at her new school. They have a fairly important plot that run along side Laurel’s and really open Laurel’s eyes to things outside of her world and also that connect into her personal experiences. At first I wasn’t convinced of their friendship with Laurel. I actually didn’t like either girl very much (not dislike, but more indifferent) and towards the end of the book, I grew to really appreciate the fact that these girls all had each other and all of the things they had taught each other as well. Their story line deals a lot with acceptance, honesty, and not letting other people stand in the way of what makes you happy and that was really eye-opening for me. (Special nod to Estelle’s review because I almost forgot to include these two girls in my review somehow!)
Sky // Relation to Laurel: New crush.
What I really liked about Sky’s role in the book was that yes, he was the love interest and we got to see Laurel fall in love, but just her relationship with him taught her how to open up, how to trust, and how to love herself again. She needed to find out how to BE loved again and be appreciated and for me, it really wasn’t even the fact that there WAS a romance but exactly all of the things that Laurel learned from it. Honestly? I barely remember any details about Sky himself. I remember the big, bold points and that’s about it so to me, that says that yes, he was a big forgettable in the sense that it wasn’t a new book boyfriend for me, but that he still played a really important role in the story and the book could not possibly have been the same without him.
Kept Me Hooked On: Epistolary formats. Granted, I DID have a hard time with the letters at times, but I really like the unique story-telling format and the feeling that it brings to the book. I always like to try to read different formats and ways of narrating so it was definitely interesting to pick up something told entirely in letters!
Left Me Wanting More: Dialogue. On the other hand, the epistolary format does take away a lot of opportunities for dialogue. We were so inside of Laurel’s head and had a larger inner-monologue since in a letter format, it’s really hearing things second-hand than as they’re occurring. I really enjoy dialogue and it makes me feel more involved in the action so that was something that I did wish there was more of.
I felt a range of emotions and reactions as I was reading LOVE LETTERS TO THE DEAD. I had some minor issues and though those issues weren’t large, they did last through the majority of the book for me. Then again, these were all really more personal issues than feeling like I had issues with the writing. I guess like any book, it will appeal to some and others won’t connect with it but it’s definitely worth the try to see if you fall in love with it!
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(Click the cover to see my review!)