Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

What do Kurt Cobain, Amelia Earhart and Heath Ledger all have in common?

They’re dead, for starters, and therefore they’re perfect for spilling your secrets to. After all, who are they going to tell?

This is the premise behind Ava Dellaira’s debut novel, Love Letters to the Dead. Made up entirely of – what else? – letters, the story follows Laurel, who is entering high school and battling much more than your average teen angst. What starts as a simple assignment from her English teacher – write a letter to a dead person – Laurel finds herself writing more than she wants to share with her teacher (or anybody for that matter). See, Laurel has a special connection to the dead. Her older sister, the always-perfect May, joined their ranks a few months ago. And Laurel is the only one who knows what happened, but she isn’t telling.

While the central plot centers around that secret, and all the secrets relating to it, I thought this novel shined most in its simple themes. We may not all have a sister who died too young and too tragically. We may not all have dark secrets haunting us. But we’ve all been where Laurel is at the start of this book: alone in a new place, unsure of ourselves, nitpicking our own flaws in comparison with someone we see as “perfect.” Dellaira writes beautiful of the struggles, not only of adolescence, but of anyone trying to learn and grow and become a person capable of and worth loving. That’s no easy feat, and it’s that simple premise that made Laurel a likable narrator.

For instance, I loved this observation she made:

I know that “What’s up?” is just something people say, but it’s a very hard thing to say anything back to. It’s like the only response is “nothing.” I didn’t want to say “nothing” because, actually, a lot was up. 

Who hasn’t thought about that before? How careless a “What’s up?” sounds when it’s casually thrown out there? I loved that.

The letters are straightforward, but they have a complexity that kept me turning pages to see what Laurel might choose to reveal next. And I thought that it was the details that made the novel shine. It takes skill, in my opinion, to share a personal and specific memory and have it be something that other people can relate to. But Laurel talked about trick-or-treating as a child, and it immediately evoked my own memories of Halloweens growing up.

When we got home, our noses were ice-cold, and our paper bags, decorated with cotton ghosts and tissue paper witches, were full. We emptied our candy onto the living room floor to count it up, and Mom brought us hot cider. I remember the feeling of that night so much, because it was like you could be free and safe at once. 

This is a Young Adult novel, and it’s proof that YA literature is full of novels that can hold truth for people of all ages. I thought there were ideas in here, ideas that sounded as though they could realistically have come from a young teenager girl, which still resonated with me, someone who is too old for the “target audience.”

Maybe that’s what being in love is. You just keep filling up, never getting fuller, only brighter. 

When we are in love, we are both completely in danger and completely saved. 

You can be noble and brave and beautiful and still find yourself falling. 

It’s a novel with real heart, and it’s a novel with some bite (don’t say I didn’t warn you earlier when I said there were some dark secrets); ultimately, that combination really works.

Rating: 7/10

Overall Reaction: “Hmm… maybe I’ll write a letter to a dead person…”

Up Next Week: Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff


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