[Review] Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

Sometimes the best letters are the ones that go unansweredIt begins as an assignment for English class: write a letter to a dead person – any dead person. Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain – he died young, and so did Laurel’s sister May – so maybe he’ll understand a bit of what Laurel is going through.

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A school project for a novel

Just to make one thing clear before speaking about this book: It’s no fantasy. I saw it advertised as such online and was really confused, looking for the elements I apparently missed. But no, there is nothing supernatural in this young adult novel. It’s nonetheless something extraordinary because I’ve never read a contemporary epistolary adolescent novel. And this book solely consists of novels that Laurel writes to dead people, starting with one to Kurt Cobain for her English class. Therefore, we only get to know about the events through her writing and are limited to her memory and perception. This way, we are nevertheless able to also experience her traumatic experiences in an intense, confessional manner. I for my part was highly involved in Laurel’s story and shattered by every additional revelation.


Because I didn’t know how to explain that after May died, all I wanted was to disappear.
That my sister was the only person I could disappear into.
– page 65-66


As this book was published in 2014, there are no trigger warnings at the beginning. Although the synopsis mentions Laurel’s loss of her sister, there are many other elements that could be emotionally troubling. I will mention them in the remainder of this paragraph, so be aware of spoilers. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the book depicts alcohol abuse but there are a lot of drinking scenes. More than that, readers will come close to a rape with Laurel and even more shockingly are confronted with child abuse. There are also scenes that make Laurel appear suicidal. On the complex storylines of other characters, we additionally find domestic abuse. That is all I remember – and remember I do. So be careful while reading.


Because I could feel the moths that needed a light beating hard, and I wanted to keep glowing for him.
– page 136


Although we are limited to Laurel’s perspective, there are some endearing other storylines. I grew especially fond of her two friends Natalie and Hannah who surprisingly are closer than first expected. Nonetheless, they fight their very own battles, which we can witness in the corner of Laurel’s eye. Tristan and Kristen also offer an interesting dynamic, a realistic relationship when it comes to leaving town for university. Finally, Sky is not only setting the right boundaries despite hurting Laurel with it, but also gives us a glimpse into life with a mentally ill family member. All these storylines are only peripheral, but I enjoyed them a lot. They make this story more complex and representational, I’d like to say.


At least that’s what I imagined, because I know that it can be hard to believe
that someone loves you if you are afraid of being yourself,
or if you are not exactly sure who you are.
It can be hard to believe that someone won’t leave.
– page 145


More than anything, this book is a coming-of-age story. Complicated through the loss of her sister, Laurel struggles to find herself at a new school, in a new family dynamic, and without her role model. For me, it was quite apparent that Laurel tried to be exactly like she saw May, her sister. Nonetheless, I enjoyed every small step towards that as much as the reversal of this process.

Especially in contact with Sky, she learned to talk about her loss and her anxiety. Their relationship was a bit odd to me at first, as they seemed to barely talk. If this is what teenage romance is like, I certainly missed (out on?) that part. I found his reserve rather suspicious, but eventually it made more sense. I gradually saw their appeal to each other and enjoyed their joint effort as much as their individual setting of boundaries. In that way, the book features surprisingly aware and contemporary issues.


In conclusion,

This book is intense. Published in 2014, it did not any trigger warnings at the beginning, but I would advise to inform yourself beforehand. Besides that, it was a beautiful, epistolary story about loss, finding oneself, and daring to be that person. I enjoyed Laurel’s as much as the peripheral story of her friends a lot, although it made me extremely emotional for a while.



The author:

Ava Dellaira is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote Fellow. She grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and received her undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago. She believes this book began when she bought her second album ever—Nirvana’s In Utero—which she listened to on repeat while filling the pages of her journal. She currently lives in Santa Monica, California, where she works in the film industry and is writing her second novel. Source


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