Love Letters to the Dead
327 pages (hardcover)
A couple years ago, The Perks of Being a Wallflower was adapted into a movie. It was one of Emma Watson’s first movie forays outside the wizarding world of Harry Potter, so it got a fair amount of press:
The movie was based on an epistolary novel by Stephen Chbosky about a teen struggling to deal with the death of a loved one. He starts school with no friends but soon gets accepted by a group of misfits (exceedingly cool if not the most popular). He goes out with them and experiments with drugs and drinking and partying. He opens up and starts to heal and begins to live life again.
Apparently, Ava Dellaira, author of Love Letters to the Dead, thought that Chbosky had hit upon a recipe for success. So, she followed it to a tee. Chbosky is Dellaira’s mentor, teacher, and friend (you can read about their relationship here). Obviously, Dellaira took a lot from their relationship.
Here are just a few ways that Love Letters follows the Perks formula:
- They are both epistolary novels. Love Letters starts as an assignment in English class: write a letter to a dead person. Laurel starts by writing a letter to Kurt Cobain (her sister’s favorite musician). Her experience is cathartic, so she keeps writing. Eventually, she has a notebook full of letters to Kurt, River Phoenix, Amy Winehouse, Allan Lane (the voice of Mr. Ed), Amelia Earhart, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Elizabeth Bishop. The epistolary style is certainly gimmicky, but the letters include some fun factoids and interesting background information about the people to whom Laurel writes.
- They are both novels about a teen dealing with the death of a loved one. In Love Letters, Laurel’s sister, May, has recently passed away. May was a few years older, beautiful, bright, unique, and magical. And Laurel absolutely adored her. May’s death has devastated not only Laurel but her entire family.
- The protagonists both start new schools with no friends but quickly find a family in a band of cool kids who like to party. Laurel decides not to go to May’s high school, because she doesn’t want to be asked repeatedly how she is doing and pitied and compared to Meg. She starts high school not knowing a soul but soon finds a group of friends. They aren’t the popular kids, but they’re invited to the popular kids’ parties. There’s the beautiful Hannah and Natalie, who are best friends and both freshmen. There are boyfriend and girlfriend Tristan and Kristen, artsy seniors who smoke a lot of pot and like Janis Joplin. And there’s Sky, the cool misfit who wears his leather jacket even when it’s hot outside.
- They both have closeted gay teenage characters. In Love Letters, they are Laurel’s new friends, Hannah and Natalie, who love each other and make out secretly. Hannah has boyfriends (plural) and is afraid to have people find out the nature of her real relationship with Natalie.
- They both have English teachers who show concern for them, want them to explore their potential, and befriend them. Mrs. Buster is Laurel’s English teacher, the one who gave her the letter-writing assignment during the first week of school. She used to teach at Sandia, where May went to school, so she knows about May’s death, and she shows more concern for Laurel than nearly anyone else.
- Their new friends help the protagonists begin to open up and heal. Laurel begins to realize that everyone goes through pain and that no one’s family is perfect. As her bonds with her friends grow, she begins to trust them more.
On top of all the plot and character similarities, the books are also stylistically similar. The protagonists’ voices are often too childish/young-sounding for freshman in high school, but they occasionally spew lines that are wiser-than-their-years and wannabe-profound (Laurel: “I felt something between us shifting, like the hidden plates of the earth. You think you know someone, but that person always changes, and you keep changing, too. I understood it suddenly, how that’s what being alive means. Our own invisible plates shifting inside of our bodies, beginning to align into the people we are going to become.”).
There’s nothing wrong with this book. And it certainly isn’t bad. It’s just hard to get excited about a book that has been written before.
People my parents’ age remember exactly where they were when they found out JFK was assassinated. People my age remember exactly where we were when we found out Kurt Cobain had committed suicide (I was sitting in my hotel room in Italy during my first trip abroad . . . and I immediately wished I could call my crush back home, a boy who was even more obsessed with Nirvana than I was). Kurt Cobain was a pained, angsty musical God to the pained, angsty teens of my generation.
I thought this book, which begins with a letter to Kurt, might make me nostalgic for those days. I can tell you one thing for certain: this book did not make me miss high school. Instead, it reminded me just how shitty high school was.
Like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, this is a young-adult book that deals with some heavy issues (death, molestation, date rape, drugs, teen homosexuality, domestic violence). And it deals with those issues frankly. It’s a little over-the-top with the growth and healing aspect of Laurel’s “journey,” and her “profundity” is a little eye-roll inducing at times. But I applaud any book that a young person going through tough times might be able to relate to or find some comfort in reading.
Who should read it: Fans of The Perks of Being a Wallflower—if you liked that, then you’d be hard-pressed not to like this, considering it’s damn near the same book. Also, angsty teenage girls.
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon: