Sunday, March 5, 2017

Book Review: Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach

"Dead Letters" by Caite Dolan-Leach
First published February 28, 2017
352 pages
My rating: 2 out of 5

I had such high hopes for this novel, and I can see why it would appeal to some readers, but it just didn't work for me. I didn't enjoy the (incredibly depressing) plot, the characters were all pretty easy to hate, and there was nothing particularly special about the writing. And, though it's been billed as a thriller (a genre that, admittedly, hasn't been my favorite of late), it was really more of a dysfunctional family saga. Having almost completely lost interest in the story, I lightly skimmed the entire second half of the book.

It focuses on 25-year-old estranged twins Ava (the good girl) and Zelda (the wild child). They haven't spoken -- other than a series of entreating e-mails from Zelda -- since a Terrible Event caused Ava to flee her family's ailing upstate New York vineyard and head to Paris for her graduate degree. Her fairly happy existence in Paris is rocked, though, when three years later she receives word that her once-beloved twin has died in a barn fire at the vineyard.

Ava hurries home, all the while dreading interacting with her father, who has a whole other vineyard and a fresh new family in Napa, and her dementia-addled mother, with whom she's always had a tense, difficult relationship. Once home, it doesn't take long for Ava to start following her sister's trail of breadcrumbs and thinking everything is just a little too "Zelda." Could it all be one of her overly dramatic sister's sensational schemes?

The answer to that question is definitely a bit unexpected, but it didn't feel particularly thriller-y to me. The book is a lot more about family dynamics, including such joyful topics as alcoholism, bulimia, severe intimacy issues, emotional abuse, sibling over-competitiveness and dementia.

Even as I write this, the plot sounds vaguely interesting. But really, it just did not hold my attention. Part of the problem was that the whole thing, from start to finish, just felt unrealistic. And it was hard to relate to a life (and a lifestyle) so very different from mine (which doesn't usually happen under the pen of a good author -- one of the reasons I love reading is to vicariously step into other people's shoes). I didn't feel any connection or empathy for Ava, just intensifying dislike; we get to know Zelda a bit through her flashback emails and I didn't really care for her either.

All that is to say, I didn't particularly enjoy this book but many people seem to have positive thoughts about it. I'd say if dysfunctional family novels are your thing (clearly, they're not really mine), then give this one a look. Otherwise... meh.

*I received a free advance copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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