Review: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava DellairaLove Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) on April 1, 2014
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 323
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Amazon ā€¢ The 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.

Much of the time, I know, give or take a star, what I’ll be rating a book when I finish within the first fifty pages or so. Depending upon what point you talked to me while I read Love Letters to the Dead, you would have gotten different answers, starting with a 3 that slowly and steadily churned upward to a 5 star rating. Love Letters to the Dead is a book that grows on you, that, like Laurel, takes time to open up and really take over your heart, but, by the end, I was choked up and teary-eyed.

At the outset, I thought Love Letters to the Dead was alright, but it wasn’t really blazing any new territory, and I was afraid it was going to be about drinking and drugs more than an emotional journey. I expected to be akin to Wild Awake, watching a girl spiral out of control. In the wake of her sister’s death, Laurel’s family has come entirely apart at the seams. After May died, her mother went to live on a ranch in California; bereft of both wife and one daughter the father mourns, a shadow of his former self. Laurel feels like, in one fell swoop, she’s lost all of her family.

Unable to deal with talking about May to anyone, Laurel changes to another high school, located near her Aunt Amy’s, where Laurel spends half her time. For a long time, Laurel doesn’t talk to anybody. They’ve all been at the same school for years, cliques formed, and she doesn’t have the energy to be social, to try. Laurel doesn’t talk to class or to anyone; she watches and she wishes. Her life is one of isolation and of writing letters to deceased celebrities, all for an English assignment she fails to hand in, because the letter she wrote to Kurt Cobain turned out too personal.

Love Letters to the Dead is told entirely in these letters, addressed to various individuals. This construct shouldn’t be a hindrance to those who don’t usually care for letters as a medium, because there remains a very clear narrative. On some level, it doesn’t matter who Laurel is writing to, because the point is that they’re all dead, all gone. At the same time, noticing trends in why particular letters are addressed to particular people really helped inform Laurel’s mental state and which relationship is most upsetting her at the time. For instance, Kurt Cobain is who she writes to when she’s thinking about her sister, Amelia Earhart is for when she’s thinking about herself, and Judy Garland is for her relationship with her mother.

The letters are Laurel’s way of processing things she can’t bear to look at head on. She can’t talk about her sister or anything else bad that’s happened, because she’s still in denial. Instead, she writes to these dead people about their problems and messed up pasts, wonders where they are. This is her way of working through how certain life paths, like falling into drugs or committing suicide are not healthy reactions to trauma.

As with the letters, once Laurel makes friends, the relationships start out very focused on those friends. Hannah and Natalie have their own drama, namely their mutual attraction, which Hannah refuses to acknowledge when she’s not been drinking and further to belie with multiple boyfriends. Laurel goes along with anything they want to do: smoking, drinking, shoplifting, and going to visit strange older guys, even when it makes her uncomfortable. Then there’s Sky, the guy that Laurel developed an immediate crush on. He’s the mystery guy, a transfer, new to the school like she is, and amazingly, he likes her too! All this while, I was seriously concerned because none of the characters felt particularly well-drawn and the novel lost the introspection of her friendlessness at the novel’s opening.

I worried that this would be all there was to the book, but oh no. Don’t be fooled. Dellaira goes all the way and presents one of the healthiest depictions of dealing with grief and of being in relationships that I’ve ever seen. It’s not easy; it hurts, but it’s so necessary. Everything has to be faced and worked through. There are no easy fixes.

Essentially, Laurel’s relationships all begin spinning out of control, driven away by her inability to open up. Just like the letters she writes to dead people and to herself don’t reveal most of the truth, she doesn’t tell anyone how she’s really feeling or what happened to her and her sister. Dellaira shows that love will not heal you and friendship won’t heal you. Only you can heal yourself. Laurel has to come to terms with things herself, and be able to open up before she can really feel close to anyone.

Dellaira manages this so incredibly subtly, as though every so slowly peeling back the flap of envelope containing all the vibrancy and emotion that I didn’t feel in the beginning of the book. The characters flesh out, starting with Laurel and then spreading to her friends, as she’s really able to see past herself. What I love most, I think, is how Dellaira even gets down into the small connections, like Laurel’s English teacher, not just resolving the romance and best friendships.

The writing in Love Letters to the Dead is what I would call deceptively simple. It’s not the ornate, banter-heavy sort of style that generally resonates with me most, but it’s honest and pure. Laurel writes like a teen girl, with a steady narrative voice that fits her perfectly and occasionally features quotes of such painful and startling honesty that it took me some time to recover after I read them. Dellaira also blends the quotes from the musical artists and poets in beautifully. I don’t know that I’ll ever hear Nirvana’s “Lithium” without getting choked up now.

In case it’s not obvious, I ended up completely loving this book. Any book that can make me tear up is impressive, and the way this novel built so steadily was just astounding. Love Letters to the Dead is an impressively powerful debut about moving on, forgiving yourself, and finding yourself. This is one of the healthiest depictions of these themes that I have seen in YA; it’s so well done that I’m still in awe.

Favorite Quote:

“What I told you about saving people isn’t true. You might think it is, because you might want someone else to save you, or you might want to save someone so badly. But no one else can save you, not really. Not from yourself,” he said. “You fall asleep in the foothills, and the wolf comes down from the mountains. And you hope someone will wake you up. Or chase it off. Or shoot it dead. But when you realize that the wolf is inside you, that’s when you know. You can’t run from it. And no one who loves you can kill the wolf, because it’s part of you. They see your face on it. And they won’t fire the shot.”

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

I miss you I'm not gonna crack Nirvana

9 responses to “Review: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira”

  1. Yea – I’m so glad you liked it! (That typically means I’ll be a fan as well.) I like the idea of the whole story being told in these letters to dead people, it definitely sounds like a unique twist.

    Though it’s kind of sad to think that Laurel feels like she has nobody to talk to except the dead, but at the same time I feel like (and I’m merely guessing since I haven’t read it), that it allows her to cope with the loss of her sister and having her life turned upside down.

    Amazing review and it just makes me so much more excited to read it. Regarding the writing style, sometimes the simple route is a nice break from the witty banter that I so deeply envy.
    Andrea @ Bookish recently posted…Blog Tour: The Cellar by Natasha Preston (Review, Guest Post & Giveaway)My Profile

  2. Ebony says:

    Thank you for the fantastic review Christina! I really can’t wait to read this one – and I love how you used a Nirvana GIF for your ‘Review in a GIFfy’!
    Ebony recently posted…Five Friday Favourites #6My Profile

  3. Great review! Sadly I was not a fan of this book šŸ™ Laurel was just too naive for me to connect with. And I felt like she never had her own identity, she just wanted to mash up all of her friends’ and sister’s personas and make them into her own. It seems like a lot of people liked this one though, and I’m glad it found it’s audience because I do think it is cool the way it was written in letters to dead famous people. Very cool concept. I would definitely read more from this author because I felt like there was something there, I just didn’t “get” it the way I should have.
    Michelle (Pink Polka Dot Book Blog) recently posted…Ashen Winter (Ashfall #2) by Mike MullinMy Profile

  4. Honest and pure, I like such stories šŸ™‚ I also like the use of letters in a book, so that is going to work great for me. Stories about finding yourself and moving on always have an impact on me – and seeing that you gave this 5 stars, I think this will be such a book for me.
    Mel@thedailyprophecy recently posted…Fairytale News 32. Concept posts.My Profile

  5. Wow, this is such a beautiful review, Christina. I hope I am able to connect to Laurel’s story as much as you did. I don’t like those storylines where teenagers turn to drinking and drugs to avoid whatever they’re dealing with, so I’m happy that it only starts off that way at the beginning of the book.

    I know it’s a heavy read, so I’ll definitely have to find the right time frame and state of mind to read it.
    Danielle @ Love at First Page recently posted…Review: PanicMy Profile

  6. Rachel says:

    WE AGREE AGAIN. I really love your review for this book because you managed to cover all the complexities of this story that I myself found difficult to explain. This is a truly beautiful story, and there’s so much more to it than you first expect. I totally agree that this is such an accurate and healthy depiction of someone dealing with grief. I think that was probably my favorite aspect of the book.
    Rachel recently posted…I Judge Books by Their Covers, and Sometimes Iā€™m Wrong.My Profile

  7. Katie says:

    Okay I’ve been totally on the fence about this one since I saw it up on Netgalley, but now you’ve convinced me. I need to read this.
    Katie recently posted…TV of 2014: What Will You Be Watching?My Profile

  8. Bonnie says:

    I had been on the fence about this one because contemporarys are really hit or miss for me. Loved the concept of this one but wasn’t sure. I really think I need to pick this one up now. I LOVE epistolary style novels. And tears were shed? Impressive. Definitely giving this one a shot now. Lovely review.
    Bonnie recently posted…Book Review – Ignite Me (Shatter Me #3) by Tahereh MafiMy Profile

  9. Janice says:

    I just saw this in the store the other day and was mulling over it. Glad I caught your review of it!
    Janice recently posted…Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor + GiveawayMy Profile

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