My rating: 3.8(ish)/5 Stars
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Macmillan)(April 2014)
Length: 327 pgs
Format: Hardcover, checked out from my local library
Goodreads Synopsis: 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 Dead is officially the book of 2014 that has me completely stumped on what to rate it (hence the ambiguous rating at the top of this post). I have a love/hate relationship with this book. I was drawn in by the fascinating concept and the pretty cover, but then completely aggravated by the first half of the book’s narrative voice. Then things take such a gut wrenching twist at the end that I could not put it down.
I hate to criticize this book because I feel like Laurel’s story is a powerful one, but the first half of the book felt like it was being narrated by a ten year old. Laurel is starting high school, which probably puts her age around fourteen or fifteen, yet she speaks in such choppy, short, and simplistic sentences that it makes her sound like she’s in elementary school, which is totally at odds with the situations she’s in as a high schooler and the new experiences she’s having. It seriously drove me crazy and I was very close to marking this book a DNF.
*Some Spoilers Ahead/Trigger Warning*
Yet the story line really picked up about 70% in and I couldn’t put it down. I had to know what abuse Laurel had suffered in the past. I had to know how her sister May died. And after I found out, I had to know what the fallout would be. The sexual abuse she suffered was devastating, but also a situation that impacts many, many young girls, and I’m glad Laurel decides to speak up about it at the end of the book, although I wish we had seen more of how she went about dealing with the abuse once it was out in the open. Dellaira deals with the issues of sexual abuse, the stigmatization of non-hetero-sexuality, and sexual awakening in what I felt was a rather candid way, and I appreciated the struggles the characters encountered while facing these issues that are often ignored or glossed over because they are uncomfortable (such as Hannah’s intimacy with much older guys, and it’s always dubious as to why she is with them and if she is truly consenting).
*End Spoilers/Trigger Warning*
Though Laurel’s narrative voice aggravated me, I really enjoyed reading about the various stages of her relationship with Sky. It made me remember the pains and elation of dating for the first time in high school, and having your entire world at that time hinge upon another person as you first discover what you think might be love, and the fallout when it doesn’t work out. He was also a surprisingly empathetic character, and his story tethers in cleverly with both Laurel’s and May’s. I also liked how Laurel’s parents were mentioned, and their history and coping was noted by Laurel, rather than making them non-entities.
I actually think this book could’ve stood well on its own without the letters to the dead aspect. Sometimes I got annoyed with Laurel discussing the background of the letter recipient’s story (although I realize it was supposed to parallel her own or May’s at the time) because I was so anxious to find out what had happened to Laurel and May. I think Dellaira has the potential to be a great author to tell heartbreaking, candid stories without the letter format or from borrowing so much from other authors (I’m not going to go into it in length, but as most readers know she borrowed really heavily from her mentor Stephen Cbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower, and the outcome is not exactly subtle). Dellaira manages to create a simultaneous tragic contemporary with an undercurrent of fantastical and eerie elements, through the character of May, who is truly an enigma. Aspects of her personality and actions, such as her obsession with fairies or the “dead” game, coupled with Laurel’s worshipful opinion of her, made her seem like an ethereal creature.
Things I Liked:
- Dellaira’s construction of friendships and relationships, particularly between Laurel and her dad and Laurel and Sky
- The candid way of writing about tough issues teenagers face (drinking, intimacy, judgement, grief, etc)
- The end reveal was so heart-wrenching I couldn’t put it down
Things I Didn’t Care For:
- Laurel’s narrative voice sounded SO immature about 60% of the time
- It borrows blatantly from Perks of Being a Wallflower, structurally and plot-wise, and I felt like I didn’t truly fall into Dellaira’s own style until the end of the book.
- The letters to the dead part started to irritate me and distract me from the plot after a while
“You think you know someone, but that person always changes, and you keep changing, too. I understood it suddenly, how that’s what being alive means. Our own invisible plates shifting inside of our bodies, beginning to align into the people we are going to become.”
Overall: Love Letters to the Dead has a great plot and story line that’s obscured by an irritating narrative voice and too many borrowed elements. If you can get past those obstacles, there’s fascinating characters and a candid account of the painful truth of being a teenager. As a debut author, I’m interested to see what Dellaira writes next, hopefully with more original style.
Would I recommend it: It’s definitely worth reading at least once! The story stays with you- it gave me book-hangover!