Author: Ava Dellaira
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux BYR
Release date: April 1st 2014
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: NetGalley - I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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My rating: 5 out of 5 starsIt 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.
I've been staring at this screen for way too long, trying to figure out how I could possibly do this book justice with my review. Love Letters to the Dead is the kind of book that I loved so much, that spoke to me in such a personal way, that I don't even know how to talk about it. All I know is that it was perfect, and that everyone needs to read it.
At first I wasn't sure if the letter format of this book would work. I kept asking myself how the author would manage to tell a complete story when the letters are written to different people, who wouldn't know what Laurel had written in the previous letters, while the reader of course would know the contents of all the letters. To my surprise, though, it worked perfectly. They're all written to these different people, but that's not the point: this book is simply about Laurel as a character, and the way she expresses herself in these letters to dead people makes perfect sense if you consider them a cathartic experience for Laurel rather than letters addressed to actual, real-life people. This format enables readers to gradually find out about Laurel's past, which I absolutely loved. (I even wish I hadn't read the description beforehand, since parts of it are things you don't find out until later on.) I love how the author incorporated the stories of the "recipients" of these letters into the novel, and they added a lot to Laurel's story.
Asides from the unique format, Laurel's character is what makes the whole story work. I loved Laurel so much; I just wanted to scoop her up and out of this terrible world so that I could hug her and never let her go. She is somehow innocent and jaded all at once: the hardships that she has had to go through are unfathomable, so it is no surprise that she has developed a pessimism and frustration that appear to be beyond her years. At other times, though, we catch a glimpse of the innocent 14-year-old beneath all the pain. This balance is beautifully done, creating an authentic character that evoked so many emotions in me.
Not only Laurel but all the characters in Love Letters to the Dead are exceptionally well-written. At first, I thought Laurel was falling in with the wrong crowd in high school, but that is most definitely not the case: Hannah, Natalie, Tristan, and Kristen are the perfect group of friends for Laurel. Each of their characters is complex and has their own story and issues; I don't want to talk about any of their stories because you should get to experience them on your own, but they're so good. I wish Ava Dellaira would write companion novels about each of them because I loved them all so much. (But maybe that's just because I'm so in love with this world that Ava Dellaira has created that I never want to leave again because I just want to keep reading her words for the rest of my life.) Ahem. Anyways. I also loved Sky - romantic storylines are very hit-or-miss for me, and even though this relationship had some of the stereotypes that would automatically make it a miss for me, this one is definitely a hit. I wish we had gotten to see even more of the development of this relationship, but it makes sense that we only get snippets because of the letter format. Either way, I absolutely loved reading about Laurel and Sky's connection. The family storyline is great, too: I both loved and hated Laurel's mom, dad, and aunt, as well as May. Each character in Love Letters to the Dead is complex and hurting in their own way; they're all perfect in an imperfect, real way.
Everything about this book is perfect, from the cover to the writing to the characters. But what I loved most wasn't any single aspect; it was the emotions it evoked in me. Love Letters to the Dead touched me in a very personal way, in a way that only very few books can. It broke my heart and showed me the darkest parts of what it means to be human, but it also put it back together again and restored my faith in the goodness of people. Love Letters to the Dead is a heartwrenching, inspiring novel about how to live through the pain and loss that are part of growing up and simply being human. I'm so in awe of Ava Dellaira's writing and this book that I want to name my firstborn child after Lauren and tattoo the gorgeous quotes I got from this novel all over my body. And since I probably won't do either of those things, instead I'm just going to urge every reader I know to read this book, right now.