March 21, 2014

Review: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira
Published: April 1, 2014, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Source: From publisher via Netgalley
Goodreads · Amazon · Barnes & Noble

“...I’m starting to realize that it’s not a coincidence. That the people I most admire, the ones who seemed to be able to use their bodies, their voices, to fight away the fear, you didn’t win, not really, in the end. It’s gotten harder to write these letters, and maybe that’s why.”

Laurel has to do the unthinkable: start her high school career without her older sister May by her side. In fact, Laurel will never have May by her side again, as her older sister died tragically a few months earlier. Laurel will have to navigate her new high school alone (she switched districts to avoid becoming an object of pity by all the faculty and students). After her mother abandoned their family for California shortly after May’s death, Laurel will spend half her weeks with her father, the other weeks with her Aunt May. 

May was Laurel’s role model, best friend, and confidante and Laurel is having trouble processing the fact that May’s no longer there. So when Laurel’s first English class assignment is to write a letter to a dead person, she doesn’t immediately choose to write something to May. Instead, she writes to Kurt Cobain, who was May’s favorite musician. Throughout the school year, Laurel continues writing letters to various deceased entertainers, recording her thoughts and emotions as she attempts to find some normalcy in her life post-May.

I personally dislike it when books are compared to other books, films, or forms of common media. I’m a firm believer that each and every work of literature should be able to stand on its own two feet (except for retellings, I suppose). And yet here I am, going to compare Ava Dellaira’s debut novel Love Letters to the Dead to two other young adult novels: The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. 

First of all, the subject matter between Love Letters to the Dead and The Sky is Everywhere is very similar: a young girl is learning how to cope with her older sister’s unexpected death. Her sister was the sun around which the younger sister orbited; and without her sister, the younger sister doesn’t know what to do or how to live. Both protagonists in these two stories turn to various forms of beautiful, lyrical writing in order to help them cope with the pain and loss.

The comparisons made between Love Letters to the Dead and The Perks of Being a Wallflower are much more subtle, but present nonetheless. Laurel, like Charlie, is an incredibly naive protagonist. Tragedies in their lives and a subsequent blocking of emotions have caused them to shut themselves off and enter high school without any friends. And they’re both adopted by a ragtag group of friends that teaches them how to live once more.

For me, at least, the comparisons were fairly easy to draw. But in no way did these comparisons affect my enjoyment of Love Letters to the Dead as a distinct book in its own right.

Laurel captured my sympathy almost immediately, despite the fact that she’s a bit younger than I tend to prefer my protagonists to be. May, however, was a character I alternately despised and pitied. Life hasn’t been easy for either girl since their parents decided to separate a few years ago. This has caused May to seek affirmation through her friends and through dating much-older guys. Laurel primarily sought affirmation through May. In a way, Love Letters to the Dead presents a fascinating exploration into the minutiae of the bonds of sisterhood. May is the leader of their pack, the one who decides everything they do. She embraces that power, while Laurel willingly hands over all responsibility to her. May also does try to protect her sister and provide for her. But, I ultimately felt as though May failed in her main responsibilities as an elder sister (and I don’t just mean through her death). As an older sister myself, I know that sisterhood is complicated, but I think that May was not the older sister she should have been.

Fortunately this story is not simply about Laurel and May’s relationship, but Laurel’s new relationship to others, and to herself. Each of Laurel’s relationships are expertly crafted: from her blossoming new romance full of hope and possibility with Sky, to the juxtaposition of wanton parties and heart wrenching secrets she and her two best friends Natalie and Hannah share, to the well-meaning but distant nights with her father, to her tense phone conversations with her physically and emotionally distanced mother, to the rigidly conservative rules of propriety under Aunt Amy. The secondary characters that Dellaira has created and placed in Laurel’s life felt so real.

Grief for her lost life is obviously a major component of this story. At times it was painful to read parts of this book, as Laurel’s grief trickles in each and every part of her life. Laurel’s anger at May--for leaving her, for the things she did that inadvertently hurt Laurel--is raw, and her sorrow is consuming. But more than simply presenting a portrait of grief, Love Letters to the Dead is about redemption, love, hope in the midst of our grief. Laurel’s narration is at times imagery-laden and simple, terse and sophisticated. It perfectly mirrors the gamut of emotions that Laurel has to endure as the sister who lived, the one who must pick up the pieces of her old life to forge one anew.

As I mentioned above, the novel starts with a letter that Laurel writes to Kurt Cobain, May’s favorite musician. Not sure of what exactly to tell Kurt in her letter, Laurel begins by revealing day-to-day information about her life. And it’s like writing that first letter opens up a floodgate for Laurel: soon she finds herself writing letters to various celebrities that she and her loved ones admired, her letters basically becoming a diary for her. As the story continues, however, Laurel simply doesn’t share information about her own life, but relates her own problems to various situations her deceased addresses once faced.

I do think that the focus on dead celebrities is a particularly apt choice for Laurel. In many not-so-subtle ways May was Laurel’s celebrity. Not only that, but the epistolary style of this novel allows Laurel to develop greater sympathy and understanding with others, even if it is one-sided. Perhaps the mention of Kurt Cobain, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Amelia Earhart, John Keats, and others will act as a draw to readers. But these celebrities are not much more than foils to Laurel and her relationship with May, and it is because of Laurel that readers will stay invested in this story.

Dellaira has written a novel that will certainly find its way into the hands of many new fans. Laurel’s story is incredibly poignant, both full of heavy grief and also enduring hope. It was incredibly rewarding to witness Laurel’s acceptance of both herself and the life she’s been given. Dellaira has talent and I am definitely interested in seeing what she writes next.

Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer:I received this review copy from the publisher, but that in no way affected my opinion. The quote is from an advanced copy of the novel and is subject to change in the final edition.  
author image


Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. This definitely sounds like a beautifully written, emotion-provoking read! So glad to hear you enjoyed it so much's been on my TBR list for a while, so it's always great to hear when someone enjoys it! The characters sound pheonominal, and I can't wait to experience them for myself! Thanks so much for sharing, and, as always, brilliant review!

    ~ Zoe @ The Infinite To-Read Shelf

    1. It really is. Thank you, Zoe! I hope you enjoy this just as much when you read it! :)

  2. It definitely sounds like a poignant one. A felicitous comparison of both Nelson's and Chbosky's novels with this book. Seems like a book I should read ASAP. Glad you enjoyed it (: Lovely review, Amanda!! (:

    1. If you love The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Sky is Everywhere, then, yes, you should definitely read this one asap. :) Thank you, Ini!


Thank you for taking the time to comment! I strive to make my blog the very best it can possibly be and I appreciate each and every comment on here.