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.
Love Letters to the DeadFeatured
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.
The Final Verdict:
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.
Laurel starts off as a reserved teen at the beginning of the school year trying to survive without her beloved sister May. Her family has fallen apart with her mother living in California and Laurel being shuffled to her father and Aunt's house. She attends another high school in hopes that no one knew her sister. On the first day, her English teacher assigns the class to write a letter to someone they admire. Laurel choses Kurt Cobain because her sister loved his music. Once Laurel starts writing, she finds herself opening up about her pain and loss and writes to other dead celebs throughout the year.
Each letter peels back the armour of Laurel, who shows us pain, grief, love, and even acceptance. Her choices of dead individuals she writes to show us who May was to Laurel. Her sister was beautiful, free, and very creative. Laurel misses this May and each letter is her way of coming to terms with not only the death but her own pain and anger.
The cast of characters reminded me so much of Perks of A Wallflower told in an amazing voice. There's many painful reveals like how Sky, the guy Laurel 'falls' for, might in fact had a past with her sister. The truth on who May really was. Also the realization that most people that she admired, including her sister, hadn't won their battles but lost with their deaths.
Powerful and at times haunting, this story will tug at you.
I can’t help it – I will do anything for a good writing style. And Laurel’s voice, while slightly inconsistent at times, comes through powerfully in her simple, honest letters. It’s poetic in a way that takes you by surprise, finding the magic in ordinary spaces and transforming it. It knows what it’s doing, and it is quietly beautiful. It reads quickly and pleasantly. In fact, if I weren’t such a stickler for well-done prose, I might not have noticed it at all. It doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is, and I know that any reader of contemporary YA can appreciate that. It takes the shapes of people and holds them up to the light. I admit that it took me a while to warm to this style’s quirks, but once I got into it, I was enthralled. This was the main factor in my four-star rating, because a book’s writing style is such a large part of whether I like it.
I was intrigued by the supporting characters. Laurel’s parents and her aunt, each coping with their grief over May in very different ways. Tristan and Kristen, the so-in-love boy and his girlfriend who also know they must break. Natalie and Hannah, Laurel’s friends who know they’re in love but don’t know what to do about it. (Natalie and Hannah were actually my biggest ship in the book.) I loved learning more about these people, and I loved how realistic they were. They held up the book’s plot – or lack thereof – so that the storyline wasn’t really first and foremost on my mind. The only problem I had was their inexplicable, instant acceptance of Laurel, whose flaws I’m discussing in the “bad” section.
I adored the portrayal of May throughout. May is, in my mind, an odd combination of Ruby from Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls and Margo from John Green’s Paper Towns. (Both are wonderful books, by the way.) May is being idealized by someone close to her, and this ends up hurting everyone. Laurel’s initial I have to be like May mentality is heartbreaking, and May’s personality is a force of nature, even when told through flashbacks. It’s obvious that these sisters had a very complicated relationship, and Dellaira’s handling of that relationship is superb.
I really liked the fact that this wasn’t an “issue book”. It certainly covers a hugely important topic, but it doesn’t overemphasize it or preach about it. Issue books definitely have their place in contemporary YA, and it’s a vital place that should be recognized and respected. But I feel that if Love Letters to the Dead tried to squeeze into that place, it would fall flat. I appreciated that Dellaira knew how far to the take the issue in this instance, and that’s a powerful testament to her skills as an author.
Laurel made less of an impression on me. This is a shame, because too many YA books I’ve read recently have supporting characters who are more interesting than the protagonist. Laurel certainly does grow and change throughout the book, coming to terms with many of the loose ends in her life. That development was traceable, and it worked pretty well. But the one thing that I wanted her to grow out of the most, her lack of independence, stubbornly remained the same. She spends much of the story following her friends around and doing illegal things just because they are, with no real sense of why she’s drinking and going to parties. Much of the abuse she suffers could be avoided if she just took control of her own life and steered herself away from these activities. Laurel may have some of the most lovely writing I’ve come across in ages, but she’s pretty darn spineless.
Sky (the reason for the “falling in love” mentioned in the synopsis) was also a letdown for me. Reason? He’s a jerk and Laurel refuses to see that. I could not ship this ship. From the beginning, Sky and Laurel’s relationship seems contrived – she likes him without knowing anything about him beyond the fact that he’s cute and mysterious. The chemistry really isn’t there, and I could feel myself thinking insta-love every time I read that they were sharing a glance or some such thing. Then – although I’ll try not to spoil anything – the two go through all of this horribly angsty I love you so I’m leaving you stuff, and this, frankly, doesn’t make any sense. I wanted to shake my fist at Laurel and say “See? He doesn’t deserve you if he’s going to treat you like that.” But unfortunately, she falls prey to his looks and his “steady driving” (yeah, that was a thing) time and again, which left me annoyed.
All in All:
Despite the shortcomings mentioned above, Love Letters to the Dead is really a special debut. I’ve done a monstrous amount of analysis and nitpicking in this review, and my feelings are definitely mixed. But do give it a shot, because it is meaningful and imperfect and eye-opening. It has a great deal of courage, and I can admire that.
I was really excited for this book because the concept sounded interesting. The whole book written in the style of letters to dead celebrities as a way to cope with the main character’s sister’s death? It sounded different and I like reading different narration styles, especially when they work well. Unfortunately, for me, there was a lot about the style that didn’t end up working.
The two major issues I had with the letter style narration. First, there was a lot of explaining the celebrity’s life to them that just seemed strange. They lived through it, they don’t need to be told they’re parents divorced or they were in a movie. It was hard to lose myself in the story when all I could keep thinking was Laurel was listing off facts about their own lives to them. Second, because the whole story was in letters, a lot of the time it felt like we were getting a short recap of her day or a moment instead of something that felt a little more complete.
That said, I did like how Laurel could take parts of what she knew or learned about the celebrities and apply it to her own life, and watching her slowly come to terms with what happened the night her sister died. Writing can be therapeutic and this was the first time I’d seen a character use it to such an extent. The side characters, and the depth they showed, was also really nice. I was worried about how characters other than Laurel would fare in a letter narration but Dellaira still managed to give them depth and show growth.
While the narration didn’t work for me, I think there’ll be readers out there who will fall in love with it and with Laurel and her friends.
One thing that did impress me was the amount of research that went into the content of the letters. I am a product of the 90s. I remember River Pheonix and Kurt Cobain. I remember my crushes on them both, and how crushed I felt to learn of their deaths. But because I was young in the 90s, I don't remember much about the mysteries surrounding those events. The author did a great job of digging around to find those details (like Cobain's suicide letter and Pheonix's very troubling childhood). Most of the "characters" Laurel writes to has a troubling past that is explored.
Along the way, Laurel learns a good bit about herself and her new friends as well. The letters become very therapeutic. If you ever kept a diary when you were young, you'll know what I mean. Laurel's deepest thoughts and fears start pouring out onto the pages. Eventually, the pages cannot contain everything and she opens up to the world. There are so many things going on in this book that make it hard to sum up in a few short paragraphs. If I tried to box it in, I would not be doing this book justice.
Even though I felt very passionately about this book while reading it, it didn't linger in my mind. There are some books that you just cannot move beyond. They echo in your soul. Love Letters to the Dead was not one of those books. I thought it would be. I went into this book expecting it to be the next "big thing" for me-- the book I would tell everyone about. But I have to be honest. I haven't given it much thought since finishing it.
Do I think it's worth reading? Sure. It's a pretty good coming of age story. The plot is full of layers that slowly peel away. Laurel learns some tough life lessons too. Love Letters to the Dead really deals with the heavy hitters of YA fiction: divorce, suicide, relationships, depression.