Review: Love Letters to the Dead

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Title: Love Letters to the Dead

Author: Ava Dellaira

Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers

Publication date: April 1, 2014

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

As immature as it sounds, I genuinely picked up this book because I loved the colors of the cover and the font of the title. I can’t resist a good font. But this is another book that my friend Holly recommended as well – though I don’t remember if she had said she read it or not. So I bought it (hardcover again – I need to restrain myself when it comes to buying new books or soon I’ll really be both broke and unemployed) and hoped for the best.

*minor plot spoilers to follow*

A short summary from the author’s website:

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 the dead. People like Janis Joplin, Judy Garland, 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 importantly, trying to grieve for May. But how do you mourn someone when you haven’t forgiven them? And how do you find your true identity when so much of who you were died with the person you loved? It’s not until Laurel has written the truth about what happened to herself can she finally 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 truly begin to discover her own path.

The entire book is written in letters to the dead (thus, the title). As readers, then, we live very much in Laurel’s head as she struggles to deal with becoming a high schooler and facing what happened to her sister, something that we only get hints of throughout the book until it is finally revealed.

The style of the book was reminiscent of Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower, which was one of the most life-defining books to me when I was a sad, lonely adolescent. The incredibly lyrical prose of the story is similar, which added to the magic, for me. One of my favorite examples from the book is this excerpt:

I have found that sometimes, moments get stuck in your body. They are there, lodged under your skin like hard seed-stones of wonder or sadness or fear, everything else growing up around them. And if you turn a certain way, if you fall, one of them could get free. It might dissolve in your blood, or it might spring up a whole tree. Sometimes, once one of them gets out, they all start to go.

Like Chbosky, the way that Dellaira crafts Laurel’s words is so honest and so real that I can’t help but feel them on a deeply emotional level. Also, like Perks’ Charlie, Laurel writes letters to someone from whom she’ll never hear back – but she manages to find support through the connections she makes with her special group of friends. Natalie, Hannah, Kristen, Tristan, and even Sky, Laurel’s love interest – they each serve a role in helping Laurel navigate the stormy waters of both high school and her past.

Natalie and Hannah help to carry the story in particular. They each have distinct personalities of their own, and I think that Laurel’s problems balancing their issues with her own is very accurate in terms of how most teens have to both support their friends and also deal with their own concerns. Natalie and Hannah also act as a great example of a realistic queer relationship. They have their struggles, but ultimately, together they serve as a fantastic reminder of just how important portrayals of LGBTQA+ relationships are in YA fiction. Natalie is also Mexican, which is explicitly mentioned about halfway through the book and which makes me very happy as a reader who knows how important diversity is, in all forms, to the YA genre.

This book is definitely a heavy read. I could almost tangibly feel the grief emanating from Laurel’s words, because her sense of loss – of her family’s structure, her sister’s life, her own innocence, her understanding of who she is – is ever-present. Dellaira tackles not just one tough topic but a smorgasbord: divorce, death, suicide, drug use, child abuse, sexual assault, and more. But throughout, she deals with each of these topics in a complex and multi-faceted way, and she includes them in a way that doesn’t feel forced or overdone. These issues are ones that teens today do face, and to pretend otherwise or to say that this is an over-dramatization would be supremely unfair. And at the end of the book, there is still a pervading sense of hope – one which left me truly satisfied and also reflective of my own life and experiences.

Love Letters to the Dead is a book that made me feel. I would highly recommend this to anyone who reads young adult literature, especially those who love “tough texts.” As a future educator (hopefully), I know that this is a book I’m going to want to include in my classroom library, because I think it can prove a valuable novel for my future students.

5 out of 5 stars.

And if you’ve been following my reviews, you’ll have noticed that this is the third book in a row I’ve given 5 stars. I really don’t care. I’m not going to knock a book just because I’ve read too many good ones before it – this book deserves 5 stars, and if I could give it more, I would. This is a book that will stay with me, and I know that it’s going to touch young adults in the same special way that the books of my generation touched me.

Tara

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