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.
Tell Me More: Love Letters to the Dead is a hard book to read. It takes up space in your mind, right where the shadows live. It calls up memories you’d probably rather have forgotten, ones that don’t just stick in your head but make your hands shake, your lungs struggle for a breath. It’s a lot like life that way.
Laurel is a difficult girl to get to know. She holds herself in tightly, and even as she tries to open up, her walls are too well fortified to do anything more than bend a little. Dellaira’s writing style is tentative and delicate, and it lulls you into thinking that maybe this story is one you’ve heard before. And maybe it is, because stories like Laurel’s are so common now, even with the hyper-connectivity that technology affords us. You can still feel completely alone and disconnected from the people around you, and you can still function somewhat normally. But Laurel’s fear and guilt and unhappiness still swirl inside her, and the letters become the only place where she can touch them and try to understand them.
Epistolary novels have always been interesting to me because of the simple honesty that letters encourage in their writers. Anne Frank did not just write in her diary–she addressed all of her entries to a person named Kitty. Likewise, Laurel takes what could have been a one-off homework assignment and continues it beyond the due date, illustrating her need for companionship and understanding. The assignment was to write to dead people, and maybe that’s what made it so appealing to Laurel: these people might be the only ones who can understand how she feels. For much of the novel, she doesn’t quite know if she feels alive or dead, and there are moments throughout the story that swing the pendulum in both ways. The letters keep her grounded and help her work through those moments, her musings on what the addressees would think of and tell her poignant reminders that sometimes we just need someone to listen, even if it’s the same old story.
The Final Say: Ava Dellaira is an astonishing new voice in YA fiction, and her words sear every page with honesty. Love Letters to the Dead doesn’t give life to a familiar genre–it acknowledges the shadows that live beneath it, and the tiny pockets of light within.
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. Love Letters to the Dead is her debut novel. She currently lives in Santa Monica, where she is at work on her second book.