Thursday, April 3, 2014

Book Review: "Love Letters to the Dead" by Ava Dellaira

This book made my heart hurt (but in a good way).

At the start of her freshman year of high school, Laurel gets an interesting assignment in English class: write a letter to a dead person. Laurel chooses to write to Kurt Cobain, who was her older sister May's favorite singer. Laurel knows that Kurt understands deep emotions, pain, and anguish, feelings all too familiar to Laurel over the last year, because of May's tragic death she can't really talk about, as well as her parents' separation and her mother's subsequent move to California from their New Mexico home.

Laurel's letter to Kurt taps a well in her soul which encourages her to write more letters—to Cobain, as well as Amy Winehouse, River Phoenix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Judy Garland, Amelia Earhart, and poets like John Keats and Elizabeth Bishop. She relates the challenges these celebrities faced and the lessons their lives embodied to the challenges she faces trying to put May's death and the circumstances around it behind her, trying to be a different person, trying to find friends who accept her for who she is, even if she is trying to reinvent herself and hide her feelings of guilt and shame.

"I want people to know me, but if anyone could look inside of me, if they saw that everything I feel is not what it's supposed to be, I don't know what would happen."

The letters chronicle Laurel's experiences in high school, as she starts making friends with a group of people who have more than their own share of problems, and falls in love with a boy named Sky, who hides some of himself from Laurel as she's doing the same to him. The letters tell of the sadness Laurel feels at how much her life has changed since May's death and her parents separated. And many of the letters share Laurel's strong love for May, how May tried to protect her and make her feel at ease, even while May was going through struggles of her own.

The secrets that Laurel keeps inside are slowly revealed, but only after they threaten to disintegrate her relationships with those she cares about. And while the revelations aren't really a surprise, to read about the pain and guilt and burden that one young girl feels forced to carry on her shoulders alone is really emotional. You find yourself wanting Laurel to open up to her family and friends, yet you, too, are worried how they might treat her in the end.

This is a beautifully written, bittersweet, and poignant book about finding the strength to carry on, and finding the person you need to be. It's also a book about learning to trust again when those you depend on have betrayed that trust. While not all of the letters work as well as others, Ava Dellaira's writing is so compelling, so nuanced, I found myself moved nearly to tears while reading this book.

It's interesting: I hadn't heard of this book until I received a targeted promotional email about it from Stephen Chbosky, author of one of my favorite books of all time, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. This book tapped an emotional reservoir that Chbosky's book did, albeit coming from a different place, and like Wallflower, it's a book that will stay with me.

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