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.
There are books which become an experience, that are more like a journey than a story, and this is one of those precious few. Its premise is simple enough: Laurel, a high school freshman who’s lost her sister, May, in a tragic accident, is assigned an English project to write a letter to someone who’s passed. What happens from there is an inadvertent journey of self-discovery, as Laurel chooses former celebrities like Kurt Cobain, Judy Garland, E.E. Cummings, Amelia Earhart and Jim Morrison, to name a few. Touching on their own tragedies, Laurel weaves together her own story with those of each deceased person she reaches out to, questioning their choices and their histories as she divulges the truths of her own. There is no damnation, simply a pure and honesty curiosity to discover the secrets behind each life and how they factored in to the untimely deaths of each person. In each one, there is a lovely and poignant connection, though sometimes it takes several letters to uncover.
The storytelling is so unique, yet so unassuming and gentle, that you hardly notice that there’s very little dialogue, as everything is being recounted in letter format. It makes those moments so special and so perfect, that they practically sing. Each word is carefully selected, there is no excess in this novel, not a single moment that felt out of place or contrived, and the voice is so very authentic it felt every bit a fifteen year old girl coming of age.
As Laurel struggles to come to terms with her older sister’s imperfections, someone she thought to be untouchable and unblemished, she begins to discover herself on her own very self-destructive path. Every letter, each story, provides a glimmer of hope and a gut-wrenching reality. At times it was difficult to get through, the brutal honesty of Laurel’s secrets and the way she clung so desperately to this idealized version of her sister, that I had to walk away. But Laurel’s story was so intriguing that I always returned.
Initially I thought it would be impossible for the author to make me care about secondary characters, being that the letter writing format seemed rather limiting, but I found myself deeply entrenched in those stories as well. Characters like Hannah and Natalie, who at first I thought of as enablers, turned out to be suffering through issues of abuse, sexual preferences and the loss of a parent. As these friendships flourished, these situations come to light, exposing the depth and difficulty of each. Other characters, like Tristan and Kristen, demonstrate true friendship and what a healthy, loving relationship looks like and provide support and guidance. And Sky, Laurel’s love interest, battles his own demons throughout the book as he tries to love Laurel during her self-destructive period while also struggling to cope with his mother’s mental illness and abandonment by his father.
What I appreciate about this book is that the parental-types are not forgotten or brushed aside. Laurel spends half her time with her Aunt Amy, her mother’s sister, allowing her to go to a school outside of her old district and away from May’s legacy, and the other half with her father. Her mother, who struggles with May’s death, has packed up and moved to California, leaving Laurel to question her role and responsibility in May’s accident and causes her to feel abandoned and unloved, and further exacerbating her need to numb herself. Yet, she too is included in the story as Laurel fights to claim her identity and come to terms with the concept of letting go. These very different relationships evolve with Laurel over the course of the novel. At first she has no idea how to connect with her father, the loss of his wife and child seeming to overwhelm and detach him from life, but as Laurel finds her voice, there is a lovely, very organic, coming together of these characters which allows each to begin the process of healing. Amy, so terrified of her own empty life, at first clings hard to Laurel and really any idea of love, to the point of obsession. But Laurel’s revelations and moments of truth, offer Amy opportunities to grow and what at first seems a very disjointed and uncomfortable relationship, grows in to one of mutual understanding.
The true beauty of this novel is its voice. Ava Dellaira adopts a very adolescent, conversational tone and is able to easily convey the childhood wonder and bravado teens experience as they find their voice. Laurel makes observations which are very unique to that period of development and I applaud the author for being able to tap into that without it sounding disingenuous. The simplicity of the words chosen shows a true understanding of that age group. Often I find myself pulled out of novels by the descriptions or language I know to be uniquely adult. Not so with this book. Each sentence, every page, felt authentic to me, as if written by a young girl. And the letters themselves were honest in a way only children know to be.
This is the rare book that I would recommend to anyone. There is no need or want to limit this to the Young Adult fan. The material is accessible to younger readers but is a stunning and captivating read for those older readers as well. A definite must read for 2014.