Ava Dellaira's Love Letters to the Dead was nominated for Best Young Adult Fiction in the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards, but ultimately lost to E. Lockhart's We Were Liars. Even so, the premise of this book interested me as did its format. Comprised completely of letters written to famous dead people, this young adult novel tells the story of a young girl coming to terms with her sister's death and her own place in the world.
The Situation: Laurel has just started high school the summer after her older sister's death. In an effort to minimize the amount of attention she would receive over what happened to May, Laurel opts for attending West Mesa High School, instead of the school her sister attended. In English class, May is given the assignment of writing a letter to a dead person, and initially, Laurel picks Kurt Cobain as he was her sister's favorite musician. But for some reason, Laurel can't bring herself to turn the letter in, but instead keeps writing more. Eventually she writes to other famous dead people, including Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, E.E. Cummings, and John Keats. But she never turns any of them in; and of course, they all remain unsent.
The Problem: Not only is Laurel still trying to deal with her sister's death, but there is also her parent's divorce, and splitting her home life between her dad's house and her religious Aunt Amy's house. With her mom in California, dealing with her grief in her own way, Laurel can't help but feel that her mother blames her for May's death, since she was the only one present when it happened, and can't seem to be able to discuss anything about it, with anyone. Plus, even with May gone, Laurel still wants to be just like her, even as she is slowly learning that May might not have been as perfect as she believed she was. As Laurel continues to write letters to dead people, she slowly reveals, and is able to talk about, what really happened leading up to her sister's death. But she fears she may have already pushed away those she wants to talk to the most.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that begins with the start of Laurel's freshman year of high school, and ends after the last day of school in the spring. While May's death is a major focus point in the story, the novel also deals with the effects of divorce, destructive behavior in teens, feelings of abandonment, and also child molestation. In other words, suicide isn't the only heavy issue this book attempts to confront. And not only are the letters Laurel writes addressed to dead people, but they are all famous dead people who died tragically. Some were suicides, but some were not, such as Amelia Earhart. And others were in that tricky are of accidental suicide, like Heath Ledger. As Laurel writes the letters, she often discusses not only what is going on with her, but also the lives of the people she is writing to. She talks to Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse about their music, and E.E. Cummings about his poetry. And she even sometimes get mad at them leaving the rest of us behind, just as she is still mad at May. Ultimately, Laurel is trying to find out who she is, because she always wanted to be just like her older sister, but now that May is gone, she doesn't know who to be.
My Verdict: Knowing ahead of time that this book was written from the point of view of a young girl whose older sister committed suicide was not adequate preparation for what the story actually contains. There is so much more going on here than Laurel just grieving for her sister. A lot lead up to the night of May's death, and now a lot is happening in the months that follow, even though Laurel would love to just be able to push it all aside and live her life. And as the secrets start coming out, things don't immediately get better. Like many things in real life, the situation gets a little worse first before anything starts improving. It is the kind of book I want to hand to every parent that decides to get a divorce. And Dellaira writes it all, the hard stuff and the fun stuff, with the kind of honesty that a book containing this sort of subject matter has to have in order to work. If you don't want to go beneath the surface to the ugly parts of being a teen and having a hurting family, then this isn't the book for you. But I highly recommend it anyway, especially if you're looking for honesty and a story that took courage to write.
Favorite Moment: As heartbreaking as it was, my favorite moment was when Laurel finally comes clean to her parents about what really happened with May. It is the kind of stuff no parent ever wants to hear, but as Laurel starts talking about it, it is clear that she is beginning to get on the path of not feeling so shattered and alone anymore.
Favorite Character: Laurel's dad, Jim, is hurting just as much as anyone, but he keeps up a strong front and is there for his daughter, whenever she wants to talk.
Recommended Reading: I recommend E. Lockhart's We Were Liars. It is a shorter young adult novel that also deals with loss, but in a different way.