Title: Love Letters to the Dead
Author: Ava Dellaira
Release Date: Available
Young Adult novels often seem to tackle the same emotions and experiences—love, heartbreak, and the transition from youth to adulthood. But few books truly capture the complexity and depth of the emotion of grief—Ava Dellaira’s breakout novel, Love Letters to the Dead, is an exception. The premise is simple, yet innovative: in her freshman English class, Laurel is asked to write a letter to a dead person. The whole novel is thus structured as a series of letters to famous people, all of whom died too young: Kurt Cobain, Judy Garland, and River Phoenix, among others. The letters detail Laurel’s experience navigating her way through complicated friendships and a blossoming romance, while dealing with the overwhelming grief over the death of her sister and role model May.
While the plot sounds cliché, the fabulous writing is truly what makes the novel stand out. Stephen Chbosky, author ofThe Perks of Being a Wallflower, couldn’t have put it better in his quote on the cover: “Love Letters to the Dead is more than a stunning debut. It is the announcement of a bold new literary voice.” Dellaira’s voice is unique and refreshing and is one of the few young adult novels that accurately captures the voice of an adolescent. It, at times, feels as if Dellaira bottled up the jumble of emotions that teens experience and spilled them onto the page in an intentional disarray. Laurel doesn’t have a deep understanding of her emotions and it often makes her seem naïve and unpredictably moody, but truthfully, this couldn’t have captured the actual experience of adolescence more accurately. Hardly any 14-year-old girl understands the complex inner workings of her own mind, and part of growing up is not only the physical maturation, but also the mental one, which Dellaira fabricates brilliantly for Laurel. In the beginning, Laurel seems almost childishly naïve and immature, and by the end, she finally begins to understand and accept the grief she is experiencing over the tragic loss of her sister. However, she also still lacks a complete understanding of her tidal wave of emotions, and only begins to conquer her grief, which gives the novel so much more realness and believability.
I’m almost certain that Chbosky’s quote was intentionally included on the front cover, as the book, while it still maintains its own unique voice, is comparable to the depth and complexity of the emotions explored in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Like in Chbosky’s novel, although outwardly the story seems like the “typical high school experience”, Love Letters to the Dead deals with the reality that there aren’t just three emotions in adolescence—love, heartbreak, and the sudden realization of one’s adulthood—but rather that often we can’t even categorize what we are feeling as a specific emotion. Grief is not always necessarily just grief—it can be anger, frustration, and guilt, all at once and I have read few other novels that explore the complexity of each of these facets of emotion. Dellaira’s novel was the first I have read in a while in which it was difficult to convince myself that the author was not in fact a teenager, because her understanding of the whirlwind of emotions that come along with becoming an adult was insightful and deep, yet no so much that the voice of the novel sounded like an adult psychoanalyzing a teenager.
Review by Danielle
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