Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira is a coming-of-age story cloaked in grief and guilt. Championed by Perks of Being a Wallflower author Stephen Chbosky as “the announcement of a bold new literary voice,” Love Letters to the Dead is a striking story about accepting loss, and learning to see beyond one’s own grief to those around you.
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.
Laurel’s story is not an easy one to read. Though her letters are written in a breezy, engaging style — Laurel is leading a tough life, in which bad things have happened to her. And reading about her experience is not easy. I so wanted to love this book – from Chbosky’s endorsement, to the epistolary style I love so much, to the lovely and beautiful prose Dellaira captivates.
I think it was the story’s underlying darkness that kept me from loving this book as much as I wanted to. Don’t take that as a direct criticism of the book, however. Just a warning that if you have personal triggers related to sexual abuse, suicide, or drugs, you may have a hard time reading Love Letters to the Dead. I certainly did. There were times when it just felt like too much. Perhaps it is the books’ overwhelming darkness that made it so difficult: there is nothing to lighten the mood, so the book grows heavier the more you read on. The slow, easy pace that begins becomes more burdened as the story unfolds and more of Laurel’s troubled past comes to light.
Perhaps, too, it’s the fact that Laurel is not an easily likable character. You feel for her … but at the same time, her anger, her choices, and her emotional trauma make it hard to root for her. You want to root for her, and yet … seeing her make repeatedly bad decisions makes it hard. Even as a teenager, she should know better. (Or maybe that’s the adult in me?)
Still, Dellaira elegantly captures one tumultuous year in this girl’s life and shows the growth she experiences from her first letter to Kurt Cobain … until she is finally able to write a letter to the one dead person she seems intent on avoiding, her sister.
Love Letters to the Dead is in stores April 1st.