Sunday, February 22, 2015

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaria - Review

Love Letters to the Dead is a book in which a high school freshman who has just lost someone they care about relates the year through a series of letters to someone.  Over the year, they deal with substance abuse, a queer friend’s difficult love life, alienation from parents, and first love.  Eventually it is revealed that the protagonist is a rape survivor.  A teacher and a boy and girl about to graduate influence the protagonist’s journey towards no-longer-a-yearling status as they mature, find their voice and sense of self, lies in a road at one point, and if this sounds very familiar to you then you probably won’t be at all surprised to find out that Love Letter’s author, Ava Dellaria, is a friend of Stephen Chbosky, author of Perks of Being a Wallflower, and helped produce the movie adaption.

Then Natalie said, very seriously, "It's like, really sad that people die." 1

I’m not the first person to note that Love Letters is very similar to Perks, to the point of being a near adaption, and opinions are divided.  My Shelf Confessions feels it stands on its own, where the similarities are the downfall of the book for Paper RiotEffortlessly Reading’s review praises it in direct contrast to Perks, in the minority as a non-fan. To be fair, Dellaria states that working on the film was a big inspiration for her, and rightly so. Perks is a superbly written narrative with a good structure to it.  And while there are similarities, the issues involved are ones that most teenage drama narratives are going to deal with: Complex love, substance abuse, other kinds of abuse, and failed parents.  See Glee2, The Raven Cycle3, The Gemma Doyle Trilogy, heck, even Taming of the Shrew.  No, the reason they’re so similar is the epistolary framing device, and this for me is the first thing I like about Love Letters that Perks doesn't have: The letters are addressed to an actual person, not an empty shout box, and thus we get reflection on the dead.

I learned a lot from the interludes where Laurel, our protagonist for the evening, would give mini-biographies of Kurt Cobain, River Phoenix4, Judy Garland, Amelia Earhart, and others.  These were some of my favorite bits, as you could see how Laurel connected to them.  Her acknowledgement of their lives, and their deaths, gave them their own character, a bit like a Greek Chorus, and in her own way brought them back to life. While at times I lost track of who was being written to when the narrative was happening, it still created a good framing device, and her musings about the eternal mystery of Amelia Earhart's disappearance hit me a lot deeper than I thought they would.

I wonder what it was like, Amelia, in the final moments of your life. Did you stare up at the clouds that you had soared over? Did you wonder if you were going back there, to live in your beloved skies forever? 5

As a reader and writer of ghost stories, as a pagan, and as a dreamer who’s lost friends this year, I’m okay with the idea that the dead never really leave us.  They linger in  words they leave behind that teach us how to avoid their mistakes and share in their triumphs, and if we love them well, they’ll love us back.  This book is as much about coping with death as it is about coping with life, and while I won’t spoil why, it’s a more complex take than I’ve seen in a YA book and for that I commend it.

Pictured: My Shelves
I really wish I’d made this a queer books blog, because my superpower is finding books with surprise queers in them.  I didn’t expect that in this book either, but then, suddenly, the B Plot is “Will the cute lesbians make it work?”  And here’s the other way in which I like Love Letters better than Perks: They do.  In Perks, the gay best friend loses his boyfriend to homophobia and 90’s stereotypes about two thirds of the way through, and ends the book single.  But then two decades passed, and now the queers in our books can have happy endings that include not being single. Sure, there’s levels on which we shouldn’t write books where all the queers have happy endings because reality doesn’t work that way, but there need to be some.  And this book delivers.  I was so grateful for that.   

The books are different in other ways too.  Love Letters is, I’d argue, not quite as well written, but also a bit lighter and softer. It’s a bit more accessible, but a little more popcorn-y.  Tasty, but I don’t think it has the same kind of staying power.  That said, I still want a not-nearly-as-good movie version.  

"The thing about traditions is they hold up
the shape of your memory."