Quaaludes and Kaiser Rolls

Love Letters to the Dead - Ava Dellaira
Our flushing hearts, trying to climb the stars - how with the wrong wind, we can fall.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so many contrasting emotions for a book as I did for this one. My first impulse was to rage quit this as early as the second Cobain letter, followed by derisively laughing at Laurel’s puerile drama. Then I felt some alien tug at my heart over Aunt Amy and her Jesus Man and got teary-eyed over the story behind her parents’ broken marriage. Reading this book felt a lot like having your emotions painfully scooped out of you, put back reconfigured at the end: strangely familiar but also new. 

The book has no chapters. Instead it kicks off with Laurel writing a letter to Kurt Cobain for an English assignment where they are to write letters to the dead. She doesn’t turn in the letter and instead continues to write to well-known personalities who all died young telling Amy Winehouse of her heartache over her dead sister May, to Judy Garland about her disconsolate father and her mother who deserted them. She tells River Phoenix of Sky, the boy made of fluttering moths inside him; writes to Janis Joplin about Aunt Amy’s Jesus and her unrequited love; tells Amelia Earheart of friends who are in love with each other but can’t be together and friends who are together and in-love but will eventually be apart.

I mean, from the list alone of these letters’ recipients, you know this is not going to be a light read. And it really delivered on that promise. Some of the details in the story made me think ofSaving June on quaaludes. But at the same time, there were moments that felt like the rich texture of the writing, was disproportionate to what was actually happening in Laurel’s life. She is a high school junior with very mature problems with very poetic insights on things that don’t necessarily resonate to me as a thirty-something woman anymore. I liked certain aspects of the ebb and flow of her relationship with Sky, there was discovery, there was learning, there was understanding… but the reactions, the drama was too age-appropriate for me (i.e. juvenile). It takes a bit of empathic stretch to tap in the latent teenager in me to relate to some of Laurel’s rationale, but I can’t deny that there were moments that were too heartfelt and pure not to be impressed with.

”You remind me of my first concert. The one I told you about on New Year’s. You remind me of the feeling of wanting to make something.”

I thought this book’s strongest points were Laurel’s recollections of May, her family’s history and current dynamics. There was something magical in the way Laurel pieced May together from her memories and something devastatingly painful about how she thinks about her sister’s death and her family being torn apart in the aftermath. She was mercilessly melancholic in her letters but you realize in the end these are just shadows being cast by the burdens she’s been carrying. 

I loved how Aunt Amy was written. It’s common for characters like her to be painted in the corner as the villainous religious zealot, stereotyped with militantly myopic values and two-dimensional personalities. But eventually, there was a stretch of Laurel’s observations about her that was soft and kind and all sorts of heart-wrenchingly wonderful.

She sent him cookies and cards, and New Mexico chili, and messages, especially the messages where she would do the voices of Mister Ed and of the Jamaican bobsledders and she would be herself. Her hopeful self, like she was saying, I’m here.

I love the way Dellaira writes, the story had the rhythm of psychedelic poetry in it. But I had a difficult time getting immersed in the letter to someone delivery, which sucks because that was exactly what drew me in the story in the first place. It was a little strange to read Laurel write to Kurt Cobain about his own divorced parents, then making the rough connection with her own life, then relate a childhood memory with May, then tell him what happened today in school. The transition isn’t always smooth, which I guess lends authenticity to the whole high school kid writing in a flow of consciousness feel to it. But narrative wise, it felt a bit taxing to keep the connection. 

It was a bit of effort to understand why she’s writing this letter to this person and that letter to that person. I even had a hard time making remembering who Laurel is writing to until she mentions it midway through asking if the dead remembers this or that when she was alive. The moments this book worked best for me was when I forget that Laurel is writing a letter to these people. Perhaps its because I have once thought of these personalities the way Laurel did, wondered the questions I’d ask them and I have a different interpretation of Kurt Cobain from her own. So in more ways than one, this worked for me but not in the ways that I expected it to be.

Maybe what growing up really means is knowing that you don’t have to just be a character, going whichever way the story says. 
It’s knowing that you could be the author instead.