By Kayla Whittle
English assignments can sometimes spark the imagination, and Ava Dellaira’s debut novel, “Love Letters to the Dead,” is a testament to those inspiring classroom activities.
In the story, one teacher asks the class to write a letter addressed to a deceased person. Laurel, a student, takes the assignment and runs with it, telling snippets of her present life as well as giving peeks into the tragedies of her past in letters to celebrities like Kurt Cobain, Amelia Earhart and Heath Ledger. This trio is only a handful of the deceased addressed throughout the novel which is told completely through Laurel’s letters. This stylistic decision forces the reader to imagine what Laurel is leaving out of her letters and what happens in her life between the times she chooses to sit down and pen a message to the dead.
What Laurel finds so captivating about communicating with people who are gone, particularly those lost so tragically, is obvious. Her older sister, May, has recently passed away. Not only can she hardly accept that truth or write about how it happened, but Laurel also has a secret — one she struggles to comes to terms with in her personal letters. Her writing mimics the attitude and skill of a young woman finding her place in the world to a degree that reveals Dellaira’s talent and bodes well for her future as an inspiring author.
While some might think that the setup of the text could be used as a gimmick to draw in unsuspecting readers, Dellaira’s writing is beautiful and poised enough to stand on its own. It’s fascinating to see how Laurel’s letters change and develop throughout the novel as she grows older and her emotions fluctuate. At times, she seems ready to stop the project entirely, though luckily, she sees us through to the novel’s tear-inducing conclusion.
The captivating text coincides wonderfully with a uniquely flawed cast of characters. Laurel sometimes makes decisions that might make readers dislike her and also blatantly refuses to deal with her grief. She continuously wears her sister’s clothes and embraces all situations in the way she thinks May would have reacted. By keeping her characters realistic and forcing them into the same family dynamic and relationship drama that might affect anyone Laurel’s age, Dellaira pulls readers into the believable world she has created.
This book will leave you with a fatal mixture of sadness and happiness. You’ll be content with how the novel ends but want much more from Laurel’s point of view, or simply wish to get another taste of this author’s work. To placate this urge, you’ll need to read “Love Letters to the Dead” again, at least until Dellaira publishes her next novel.