Love Letters to the Dead: review

December 12, 2014 2014, 4.5 star books, Ava Dellaira, contemporary, realistic fiction, Wendy 41 ★★★★½

Love Letters to the Dead: reviewLove Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira
Published by Farrar Straus Giroux on April 1st, 2014
Genres: contemporary
Pages: 327 pages
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
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four-half-stars
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. Soon, Laurel has a notebook full of letters to the dead—to people like Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger, Amelia Earhart, and Amy Winehouse—though she never gives a single one of them to her teacher. She writes about starting high school, navigating the choppy waters of new friendships, learning to live with her splintering family, falling in love for the first time, and, most important, trying to grieve for May. But how do you mourn for someone you haven't forgiven?

It's not until Laurel has written the truth about what happened to herself that she can finally 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 truly start to discover her own path.

In a voice that's as lyrical and as true as a favorite song, Ava Dellaira writes about one girl's journey through life's challenges with a haunting and often heartbreaking beauty.

Months ago, I had to put Love Letters to the Dead down because it was making me so desperately sad. Almost a full year later, I read the last half of it with a lump in my throat and tears dripping down my face. This is a profoundly moving meditation on grief, written with rare sensitivity and the kind of prose that nearly stops your heart with moments of quiet, anguished beauty.

I cried throughout the book because there are so many small moments that so keenly observed bewilderment and pain, as well as anger and recklessness in the face of abandonment. This is a slow, contemplative, and occasionally blurry book, but it so skillfully weaves past and present together that when a devastating moment comes late in the story, it took me a minute to realize what was actually happening. My heart aches for this kind of intense, complicated sister love, as well as for View Spoiler » and the terrible pain that every one of us experiences when we grieve the sudden loss of someone we love. Death stays with you, always, and sometimes it even helps shape the person you become.

Other things I loved: all the characters, particularly the teachers and the parents doing the best they can. Hannah and Natalie. The absolute truth of imperfect lives and memories and methods of coping. The awful sense of identification with noticing small details and clinging to them. The beautiful writing. The skillful structure. The surprisingly touching letters to the dead. And I normally don’t even like epistolary books! So much of this seemed like things that wouldn’t ordinarily work for me, and yet I absolutely loved it. That’s the power of great writing.

I’d strongly recommend this book to fans of If I Stay. That’s the only other contemporary YA book I can think of that comes even close to this level of complex emotion, though even that didn’t leave me as devastated as this did. It’s the kind of reaction I kept hearing other people had with other contemporary writers, but I’ve never experienced until now.

This book is incredibly painful to read–but it’s exquisitely beautiful as well. It’s well worth every tear you’ll shed.

An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.

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41 Responses to “Love Letters to the Dead: review”

  1. Vivien

    I’ve known I needed this book for months now. I swear, I’m adding it to my next book buy.

    This sounds exactly like the riveting novel I’ve been looking for. Every now and then we need something more somber. As much as this genre might rip at my soul, it makes me feel alive. I almost crave it…..though I do find a more ‘perfect’ time to read it.

    Now I must own this one!

    • Wendy Darling

      YES–please do read it, Vivien. I think it’s important to get jolted out of our comfort zones every once in awhile, even if it hurts. You’re right about needing to find the right to read this one, though.

      This is an astonishingly good debut. I hope we see many more books from her in the future.

  2. Jenn

    I’m right in the middle of this based on your recommendation. Wow – I see what you mean about taking a break. Usually I’m able to plow right through books but this one definitely requires time to process. There’s almost too much grief – in a good way – cramming all of Laurel’s mourning into compact bites of letters and letting the reader go quickly through something that took, in her time, weeks and months.

    I’m not sure if I’ll finish it this time around or if it’s one I’ll need to set back on the (library) shelf for a bit.

    • Wendy Darling

      Ohhhh, Jenn! I’m glad you are giving it a chance, but yes. The grief is almost overwhelming in parts, and the thing that gets me is it’s not like the way grief is handled in most books. It’s not a ton of drama or tears or exposition, it’s just…profoundly sad in what’s revealed in those letters.

      I don’t blame you at all for needing to take a break from it, but I do hope you’ll come back to it sometime.

    • Wendy Darling

      Oh, my pleasure, Benish! This actually wasn’t even on the schedule to be reviewed on this day, but I finished it late at night and the words just came pouring out. Voila, impromptu review, hah.

  3. Charnell @ Reviews from a Bookworm

    Oh dear, you’re making me both really sad this has sat on my bookshelf for months unread AND really happy this has sat on my bookshelf for months unread. It sounds like a book that could make me ugly cry so badly. After a sudden and very unexpected death in the family I know I wouldn’t have been ready to read this back when I first bought it. But I now feel it’s a book that’s going to move me and make me cry, but hopefully not upset me. You’ve sold me on it though, I will definitely be adding this to my January TBR pile.
    Charnell @ Reviews from a Bookworm recently posted…All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven: Review

    • Wendy Darling

      Oh no, don’t feel bad–if you’re an emotionally sensitive reader, it’s a hard book to process at any time, but I can’t even imagine trying to read something like this with real life pain so fresh. I’m so very sorry for your loss, Charnell.

      I think the book’s strength is that it does speak so strongly to how we deal with grief, even in ways that sometimes are unwise, unclear. As a teenager your feelings are so intense and wild, you know? I understood this girl, and I hurt for her. I hope the book moves you, too.

    • Wendy Darling

      Yes. I don’t make that comparison lightly–until now Gayle Forman’s been the gold standard for contemporary YA as far as I’m concerned, but I think this author gives her a good run for her money. I hope you love it, too! I hope you cry buckets and buckets! heee.

  4. Danielle Binks

    This is one of those books I wish I’d read in 2014, because I’m 99.9% sure it would have made my ‘Favourites’ list … but I was never in the quite right mind-set.
    I’ll definitely get to it in 2015 though.

    Great review!
    Danielle Binks recently posted…Most Anticipated Books of 2015

    • Wendy Darling

      That’s why I made sure to finish it before the end of the year! I wasn’t even in the mood to read something sad, but I knew there was a good chance it’d be on my faves list so I pushed through–and I”m very glad I did. I’m pretty sure you will love this, Danielle, and look forward to hearing your response when you get to it.

  5. Carina Olsen

    Aw. <3 Amazing review Wendy. I'm so glad you loved this book too :D It feels like its been so long since I read this book, as I can't remember all the details, but I remember loving it a lot too. <3 I adore reading your thoughts about it. This book was just all kinds of sad. Sniffs. Thank you for sharing sweetie. <3
    Carina Olsen recently posted…In My Mailbox #163

    • Wendy Darling

      I’m so glad you loved the book too, Carina! It’s such a sad, lovely book. I”m surprised not to see more attention being paid to it, but maybe it’s just too sad.

      I hope we get another book by this author, too. She’s very gifted.

  6. Hilary

    I didn’t finish Love Letters to the Dead (not because I didn’t want to) but because of the library breathing down on my neck to return it. I’ve only gotten past the first 20 pages and I’m a bit indifferent to the main character. But since you gave such a lovely review, I’m going to try to finish it! Thanks, Wendy.
    Hilary recently posted…Review: I’ll Give You the Sun-Jandy Nelson

    • Wendy Darling

      Those pesky return dates! I’ve had to stop a lot of books for that reason, too.

      I hope you will give it a try sometime. I’ll be honest, the style/format doesn’t really change so if it doesn’t grab you early on, it just might not be the right fit for you. But I thought it was really wonderful, and all the more powerful for its subtlety.

  7. Peyton

    I saw a lot of good things about this when it came out, but I didn’t pick it up because I was afraid it would devastate me. Now I know it will! I want to read this, but it will have to be when I’m in the mood to cry my guts out. Great review, as always! :)
    Peyton recently posted…Love Letters to the Dead: review

    • Wendy Darling

      I think it might destroy you!! Hah hah, I mean that in the very best of ways, of course. <3 I'm pretty picky about contemporaries, but this one just hit me in all the right places. You really do have to be in the right mood for it, though. Pick a rainy, moody day. ;)

  8. Cait @ Paper Fury

    I reeeally wanted to like this one and I think it was beautiful and well written…but for me it was TOTALLY EXACTLY like The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Even the reveal at the end was the same. 0.0 It was just a gender-swap. So, yeah, I don’t know how to feel about that because Perks is the first book that made me cry.
    Cait @ Paper Fury recently posted…The Heroine Tag

    • Wendy Darling

      I think with books like this, the writing is key. The plot isn’t hard to ferret out and it’s not a mind-blowing revelation, as the reveal is something present in many, many books. But the writing and emotion are so outstanding here that the journey is what matters to me.

      And funny, I actually DNFd PERKS. Different strokes.

  9. Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews

    Beautiful review, Wendy! I agree, Love Letters to the Dead is very well done, extremely sad, and touching on a lot of difficult subjects in a way that makes it painfully beautiful!
    I’m glad you managed to pick it back up and finish it – even if it made you cry hard, and think about the way grief and abandonment touches us.

    I hope you’re doing well! Enjoy your weekend, and more emotional books, too :)
    Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews recently posted…Review: Magic Strikes – Ilona Andrews

    • Wendy Darling

      Thank you, Lexie! I’m so glad I picked it up again, too. I’m trying to make my way through as many 2014s as I can that might make my favorites list (whhhy do I do this every year), and I knew this was a big contender based on what I’d read earlier. I was glad to see this one was touching to you, too–such a beautiful, complicated book.

      Hope you’re doing well, too! Happy happy holidays!

  10. Layla

    Ooh, I haven’t read this, but I’m really interested in the premise. I have a hard time with sad books (and often feel like I’m being emotionally manipulated in some way by then, because that is how I roll!), but this sounds totally different from that. I’ll add it to my to-read list; a book that deals with grief and feels true and emotionally complex is a rare find for me.

    Beautiful review!
    Layla recently posted…Love Letters to the Dead: review

    • Wendy Darling

      You know I hate feeling manipulated, too–and I don’t enjoy mopey or melodrama either. This one really has things to say about grief, though, and I love that it’s centered around sister love. I mean, there’s a romance in it (which wonderfully, isn’t tidy and perfect) but the focus of the book is on this girl’s awful pain over her sister’s death and how she tries to cope with it.

      I’ve read a few reviews that were absolutely scathing and called this boring and the girl pathetic and so on, and they just make me flinch. I respond most deeply to books just like this, where the feeling often lies just beneath the skin, and surfaces every once in a while to devastating effect. It’s the small moments that made me cry, really–I think anyone’s who’s lost someone and truly been changed by it will understand.

      And hah, thanks. It’s rough, and it started out as one of those quickie 3 am things I was going to bang out and include in a mini review round up, but it deserved more than that. Impromptu review, heeey.

    • Wendy Darling

      I actually really dislike letters and journal entries as a general rule–I find them distracting and the technique often feels forced or trite. Every once in awhile an author handles it all so well that it doesn’t matter, though, and that’s certainly the case here. You get history, big picture, and emotion in a way that’s hard to carry off in this format, and you also get a character who reveals things to the reader through her letters that she may not necessarily be aware of herself. That is truly fantastic writing, and it’s all very subtly done.

      And thank you! I hope I haven’t oversold this, hah.

  11. Nikki

    I thought If I Stay looked like an amazing read and it’s currently on my TBR list. I’ll have to add this one as well. Thanks for the rec!

    • Wendy Darling

      IF I STAY and LOVE LETTERS represent the best of what contemporary YA has to offer, in my opinion. I hope you’ll be able to read one or both of them in the near future! People seem to either love them or hate them, but polarizing books are often some of the best ones.

    • Wendy Darling

      I’m actually the same way! I rarely cry over books (and nothing makes me angrier than feeling manipulated into empty emotion), but I am always, always seeking books that truly resonate emotionally and will rip out my heart. I read books for escapism, sure, but the ones that stay with me longest are the ones that move me in ways I didn’t expect.

      You’re right, it is magic.

  12. Madiha@Symphony of Words

    Oh my God. I’ve had this book in my TBR pile for a while now, and I’ve heard nothing but praise for Dellaira and her work. If this book made you cry, I’m afraid I won’t be coherent for a few days by the end of it. Intensely beautiful, you say? So is your review, Wendy. Honestly. Thanks for sharing, this is definitely moving up in my TBR pile :)
    Madiha@Symphony of Words recently posted…Book Blitz: My Ex From Hell (The Blooming Goddess Trilogy #1) by Tellulah Darling

    • Wendy Darling

      This was a really hard book to get through, Madiha. I’ve been lucky that I haven’t lost too many people I’ve loved, but the grieving process Laurel goes through in this book is very familiar to me, as are other things she’s experienced as well. After reading too many books this year that are all about technique, it’s nice to find one that is not only structured and written well, but also has so many things to say about the complicated nature of love and loss. I hope you love it as much as I did….and thank you!

  13. Rebecca

    Beautiful review, Wendy! I’ve had this on my list for a while, but I think I need to bump it up now.

    • Wendy Darling

      Yes, please do! It’s not a book that will work for everyone, given its structure and quietness, but it exactly the right kind of contemporary for me. I hope you love it, too.

  14. Pili

    I have this in my Kindle library and now I’m even more excited about this but I’m also quite scared… I’m not sure if I’m emotionally ready for a book that will destroy me like this!
    Wonderful review Wendy!
    Pili recently posted…Waiting On Wednesday #72!!

    • Wendy Darling

      I’m really surprised by how much I cried over this. Even when I picked it up again, I was like–surely it can’t be as emotional as I remember! But it was. And it’s not in the usual SOMETHING BIG AND DRAMATIC just happened here, it’s all these little observations and feelings that feel so emotionally true. I think most readers who have lost someone and grieved will find poignancy in this.

      Definitely a book you have to be in the right mood for, though.

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