Hardcover, 323 pages
Published April 1st 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
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 did. Soon, Laurel has a notebook full of letters to people like Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Amelia Earhart, Heath Ledger, and more; though she never gives a single one of them to her teacher. She writes about starting high school, navigating new friendships, falling in love for the first time, learning to live with her splintering family. And, finally, about the abuse she suffered while May was supposed to be looking out for her. Only then, once Laurel has written down the truth about what happened to herself, can she truly begin to 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 begin to discover her own path.
I heard about this novel at the Raincoast Fall/Winter event and my interest was immediately captured, not because it was blurbed by Stephen Chbosky but because there’s a certain whimsicality to the premise. The main character, Laurel, writes letters to dead celebrities. That alone engaged my interest. I didn’t even read the synopsis for the book and had I done so I would have realized that it suffers from The Dead Sister Syndrome and probably felt more hesitant about reading it. So I’m sort of glad I just went with my gut feeling.
I will say that the writing is beautiful and get that out of the way. I’d give examples but I have an ARC copy and we’re generally not encouraged to quote from that so just take my word for it. Dellaira’s word-weaving is magic and I enjoyed reading some sentences out loud because they made such nice sounds and said so many things every so beautifully.
What I liked most about this book is the honesty in Laurel’s feelings. Her vulnerabilities, her spiralling mental health and her inability to navigate a world in which she’s suddenly thrust in, a world in which her sister no longer exists and her mother has abandoned her read authentically without being melodramatic. I liked the attention paid to the father’s loneliness and his feelings just as I liked how the aunt is not just portrayed as a bible thumper but as a genuine person who is more than one thing. These little details went a long way to cementing my appreciation of the novel. Another wonderful thing Dellaira does is the way she uses the personages, the dead celebrities, Laurel writes the letters to. They’re not just names on the paper but their lives and their deaths are used in a cleverer than I had anticipated and I liked that. I won’t say anything more because I don’t want to give it away but five thumbs up for that.
Another amazing thing Dellaira does is she takes the trope of the gay best friends and elaborates on it. She gives us fascinating side characters who have their own relationships, conflicts and resolutions. If I were to get poetic, I’d say gave us a sky and dotted with brightly shining stars that formed a constellation. I’m sorry, that’s cheesy but honestly, the LGBQT relationship portrayed in this novel is commendable.
Now, though I liked the novel, it had a lot of faults. The love interest is not my favourite. I understand his logic and I understand his actions as self-preserving but how he acts after they break up is problematic for me. Also I don’t understand the lack of anger the parents have at the end towards a certain adult. I wanted some justice but then again, I’m bloodthirsty like that.
Honestly, I really liked this novel. It isn’t perfect, not by a long shot, but the good parts are really good, so good in fact that I’m willing to overlook the not so good parts. Definitely recommended.