Love Letters to the Dead: review

Love Letters to the Dead: reviewLove Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira
Published by Farrar Straus Giroux on April 1st, 2014
Genres: contemporary
Pages: 327 pages
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads


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. Soon, Laurel has a notebook full of letters to the dead—to people like Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger, Amelia Earhart, and Amy Winehouse—though she never gives a single one of them to her teacher. She writes about starting high school, navigating the choppy waters of new friendships, learning to live with her splintering family, falling in love for the first time, and, most important, trying to grieve for May. But how do you mourn for someone you haven’t forgiven?

It’s not until Laurel has written the truth about what happened to herself that she can finally 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 truly start to discover her own path.

In a voice that’s as lyrical and as true as a favorite song, Ava Dellaira writes about one girl’s journey through life’s challenges with a haunting and often heartbreaking beauty.

Months ago, I had to put Love Letters to the Dead down because it was making me so desperately sad. Almost a full year later, I read the last half of it with a lump in my throat and tears dripping down my face. This is a profoundly moving meditation on grief, written with rare sensitivity and the kind of prose that nearly stops your heart with moments of quiet, anguished beauty.

I cried throughout the book because there are so many small moments that so keenly observed bewilderment and pain, as well as anger and recklessness in the face of abandonment. This is a slow, contemplative, and occasionally blurry book, but it so skillfully weaves past and present together that when a devastating moment comes late in the story, it took me a minute to realize what was actually happening. My heart aches for this kind of intense, complicated sister love, as well as for View Spoiler »girls who think they’re safe but they’re not « Hide Spoiler and the terrible pain that every one of us experiences when we grieve the sudden loss of someone we love. Death stays with you, always, and sometimes it even helps shape the person you become.

Other things I loved: all the characters, particularly the teachers and the parents doing the best they can. Hannah and Natalie. The absolute truth of imperfect lives and memories and methods of coping. The awful sense of identification with noticing small details and clinging to them. The beautiful writing. The skillful structure. The surprisingly touching letters to the dead. And I normally don’t even like epistolary books! So much of this seemed like things that wouldn’t ordinarily work for me, and yet I absolutely loved it. That’s the power of great writing.

I’d strongly recommend this book to fans of If I Stay. That’s the only other contemporary YA book I can think of that comes even close to this level of complex emotion, though even that didn’t leave me as devastated as this did. It’s the kind of reaction I kept hearing other people had with other contemporary writers, but I’ve never experienced until now.

This book is incredibly painful to read–but it’s exquisitely beautiful as well. It’s well worth every tear you’ll shed.

An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.

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