“Love Letters to the Dead” by Ava Dellaira

This review is going to be a little different.

I have a hard time with books like these, because they’re simultaneously too close for comfort and completely alien to me. If you haven’t already heard about Love Letters to the Dead, it’s essentially The Perks of Being a Wallflower with a female protagonist. A young girl named Laurel has just started high school and is given an assignment to write a letter to a dead person. She chooses Kurt Cobain because he was her older sister’s favorite musician, who just passed away the previous year. She continues writing to Kurt, and other famous people who died young, and it is through these letters that we learn about Laurel’s life and the mystery surrounding her sister’s death.

A lot of people are saying this book is similar to Perks, but I found Love Letters to be almost too similar. The plots are practically identical, they’re both written entirely in letter form, even the side characters have similar story lines. Laurel’s voice is also inconsistent, veering from beyond-her-years poetic to immature and stilted exposition: “I did this. I did that. It was fun.” I found her difficult to believe.

There was a portion of this book that I found really upsetting on a personal level, and that’s the letter Laurel writes to Kurt where she goes on a “how could you do this to your family” rant. It bothers me because the whole “suicide is selfish” argument is in itself entirely selfish. You are essentially telling someone, “I know you’re in a lot of pain right now, but why don’t you think about my feelings for a minute?” If someone’s at the point where they can no longer tolerate the weight of their own existence, piling guilt on top of that will only crush them. This argument bothers me every time I see it.

It bothers me because I’ve had this argument in real life, and that’s why books like this are difficult. My own struggles with anxiety, depression, and suicide make books like this an exercise in reliving dark days I still haven’t completely left behind me. However, unlike the main character in Love Letters, or in Perks, I don’t have a traumatic incident in my past to point to and say, “There it is. That’s why I’m like this.” I have no explanation to offer the people I alienate, frighten, or hurt with my behavior. It’s like my blood is full of pressurized explosives, like little land mines, and every point of contact causes an, unnoticeable from the outside, yet very real and painful detonation. I find it hard to touch anyone, even people I love.

I’ve had plenty of people insist that there must be something, some big bad adult who hurt me as a kid, but there wasn’t. There were those who made things worse, who told me it was my fault I felt anxious and alone because I wasn’t right with god, wasn’t praying enough, but as far as I can tell the land mines have been in blood since birth. I’m still in the process of learning how to live with them. Part of me still hasn’t recovered from the way this problem was handled in my adolescence, the insistence by some that I just wasn’t trying hard enough. It’s even harder to deal with those that persist in pushing their half-baked theories, often based on media representations of “people with problems”, since the simple truth that I’m like this because I’ve always been doesn’t satisfy them.

So that’s why I have a hard time with books like Love Letters to the Dead, they perpetuate the idea that anxiety and depression are caused solely by outside sources, and that everything can be fixed easily enough with the help of friends, family, and falling in love. Especially falling in love. I hate that more than one well intended person has told me I’d feel better if I got a boyfriend, and I know it’s because they saw Garden State or some shit. Like that’s seriously what you should do when you’re falling apart, invite someone else into your cesspool of a life. What you need to do is recognize the beast inside yourself and take steps to tame it. Other people can help, of course, but the only one who can save you is yourself.

Oddly enough, that’s the one part of Love Letters I appreciated. One of Laurel’s older friends tells her at one point that she’s the only one who can save herself, and she takes this to heart, though I still felt she relied too much on her love interest in the end. Is it strange to bring the conversation back to the book at this point? Because I’d like to.

Abuse is a very real thing, and those stories need to be told. I try not to let my personal experience get in the way of what an individual story is trying to accomplish, however, this book just wasn’t great. The whole situation with the sister felt implausible to me. Is it really possible she didn’t know what was going on with a setup like that? Couple that with flimsy characters, shoddy research (you don’t learn anything about the people Laurel writes to you couldn’t find in a two minute Google search), and the plain fact that this whole story has been done before and done better, and you wind up with a book that just wastes your time.

Title: Love Letters to the Dead
Author: Ava Dellaira
Published: 2014, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Pages: 323
Would Recommend: No. If you want a story about self discovery and coming to terms with a troubled past, read The Perks of Being a Wallflower. If you somehow haven’t already.

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