I have been trying to collect my thoughts on Love Letters to the Dead for some time now, but I’ve never felt so torn over a book before. Well not so much. On one hand, I enjoyed some of the child-like narrative, the main character’s growth, and the conclusion at the end. On the other hand, at times I found the direction of the predictable, cliched, and tedious.
Written in epistolary form, Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira is a collection of letters written by Laurel. Addressed to famous people, Laurel finds solace and comfort in writing to the likes of Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and Amelia Eckhart, as the grieves for her recently deceased sister, May. As she starts her year at a new school, Laurel writes about her unorthodox friendships, her broken family, falling in love, and also her grief.
Love Letters to the Dead reads like a teenager’s diary. With this, there is good and bad. The bad is that sometimes the narrative is tedious, the voice is annoying and callow, and the subject may be tying.Laurel is thirteen/fourteen years old, and whilst I think people of that age can be complex because they are caught in a strange, confusing time of transition and change, Laurel’s thoughts sometimes have no depth. In other words, Laurel sometimes feels like an annoying caricature of young teenagers, rather than a human being enduring unimaginable grief that she does not want to come to term with.
The “romance” in this book was easily the weakest aspect of Love Letters to the Dead. Though Dellaira develops the romantic interest toward the end, her portrayal in the beginning is cringe-worthy and contrived. It would have been forgivable if her infatuation led to some sort of self-growth – but that does not happen. Laurel is immediately drawn to Sky is immediately drawn to Laurel. Think of the most cliched high school romance, and you would have envisioned Sky and Laurel’s relationship. Although his fascination with Laurel is explained near the end, it still could not convince me. I am adamant that this book would have been better if there was no romance.
However, the thing I was most disappointed about in this book is that the depth of Laurel’s grief for her sister is not very deep at all. For a book that centralises its narrative on grief and pain, Laurel does suppress some of her grief, but where were the cracks in her exterior? Where were her moments of weakness? And though there are these moments in the book, the problem is that there is alot of telling and not showing, and it was very difficult for me to connect with Laurel emotionally. After thinking about it, I realised it was because of one problem in this book: Laurel has no substance as a character.
I liked Laurel’s struggles to navigate teenagehood, rebellion, high school, and friendships. I liked them in the sense that I liked that Dellaira wanted to explore these valid, real struggles with a critical but non-judgmental lens. I could relate when she did things her friends asked her to do (even though she did not want to) because of her description and need to be liked. But if you asked me to describe Laurel, I would be at a loss as to how. Laurel has no personality – she is more of an observer who carries as an emotional burden, and that emotional burden is her character. Laurel does things, she acts, she speaks, but underneath it, she is just a hollow vessel of this story, and because of it, the grief feels too hollow.
Despite its faults, Love Letters to the Dead has some positive qualities. Though the first half is willed with puerile contemplation about high school and Sky, the second half of the book is significantly better – so if you can get through the tedious first half, the second half maybe rewarding.
For me, the highlights of this novel were Hannah and Natalie. (Spoilers to follow). I initially wrote them off as rebellious, shallow girls like the ones you see in Grease, but as the book progresses and Laurel’s friendship and trust with them deepens, the internal struggles and tribulations both characters faced are profound and, by the end, brave and beautiful. Hannah and Natalie, as characters and as a couple, resist heteronormativity, and I enjoyed Dellaira’s exploration of the stigma, the necessity of keeping secrets, the fear, the lust, and challenges that they face because of it. Hannah and Natalie were interesting, well-written characters, and their relationship and its presence in the YA scene is important, deep, and brimming with strength. (Spoilers end)
Which leads to why I ultimately liked this book: despite its many flaws, Love Letters to the Dead is also a story about growing up and navigating the strange, contrived conventions that exists when grief and deep anger clings to you wherever you go. It is about burdens and trauma, and how everyone carries their own baggage, no matter how still the water is on the surface. There were cliched elements, but there were some that were heartfelt and raw. Love Letters to the Dead is about how our lives are imperfect and how sometimes things are beyond our control and how painful that can be.
Love Letters to the Dead is far from perfect, and it would largely depend on whether you are willing to seek an emotional connection with the characters or the narrative. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading it – well, for the most part; the ending redeemed it – and I recommend it to those who enjoy teenage coming-of-age novels.