book review: Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach

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Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach

US pub date: February 21, 2017

★★★★

Dead Letters probably has the weirdest vibe of anything I’ve ever read. If I had to explain this book to someone, I don’t think it would be particularly helpful to summarize the plot, which makes it sound like a tense mystery instead of the literary character study that it is. I’m not really sure how I would explain it. There’s something about it that reminds me vaguely of a film noir, told with a linguistic prowess and dramatic flair that calls to mind the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. Somehow. Despite not really having anything in common with either of those things. Are you sufficiently confused? Yeah, me too. Let’s proceed.

Dead Letters commences when Ava Antipova receives a distressed email from her mother, informing her that her twin sister Zelda has died in a barn fire. Ava, who’s been living in Paris, flies home to her family’s vineyard outside Ithaca New York, suspecting that Zelda’s death may not be exactly what it seems. Soon she begins to receive a series of clues, hoping it will lead her to the truth of what happened that night in the fire.

In this era of fast-paced thrillers, let me stress: this does not belong in the mystery genre. This is a (at times slow-moving) character-driven novel. I didn’t like it any less for this fact, but I’m glad I’d heard that it wasn’t exactly a thriller before picking it up. Sometimes it’s difficult to adjust your expectations partway through a book.

Though you’ll have a hard time loving these characters, each makes a hell of an impression. Each member of the Antipova family is a volatile, selfish alcoholic. This is a book about horrible people being horrible to one another, and if you can’t bear to read about that, you won’t enjoy this book. But if you’re fascinated by dysfunctional interpersonal dynamics, as I am, there’s a good chance you’ll find this rewarding.

Our narrator, Ava, is one of the most well-crafted and three-dimensional characters I’ve read in anything recently, which is especially a feat considering the first-person narration (which I find at times complicates the reader’s ability to give the narrator an objective assessment?) But I thought that Ava was frustratingly, unnervingly real, for all her faults and virtues. Though at the beginning I was sure I wasn’t going to be able to see any of myself in her, there were certain details, like her fear of intimacy, that I found I related to so intensely it was a bit unnerving – the kind of thing where you’re reading and suddenly your breath catches and you feel deeply unsettled like you’re seeing yourself on the page. That’s just how present this story felt.

Caite Dolan-Leach’s writing is superb. Though it’s wordy to the point of pretension, you can always tell, with a book like this, which authors are anxiously flipping through thesauruses and which authors have had these words in their arsenal all along, and it’s pretty clear that Dolan-Leach belongs in the latter category. The (at times annoyingly overwrought) prose suits the story and the characters so seamlessly that it’s hard to imagine it being written any differently.

As for the ending – I won’t spoil anything, but I loved it. It was exactly the emotional payoff I was looking for after this long-winded adventure.

Though it takes a while to get going and relies a bit too heavily on elaborately baseless guesswork from the characters in order to connect certain plot points, Dead Letters was a clever and addicting read, and I thoroughly enjoyed this ride.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Netgalley, Random House, and Caite Dolan-Leach.

+ link to review on goodreads

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