Dead Letters, by Caite Dolan-Leach, is the story of identical twins Ava and Zelda. If you've frequented my blog, you know how I love a good identical twin story, and this one does not disappoint. However, I'll give you fair warning. It is very dark. This is not an adult version of Sweet Valley High. It's not even a more adult version of the actual adult version of Sweet Valley High. Dead Letters is all about family disfunction, addiction, and identity. It's also a mystery, and while the clues stack up neatly, the ultimate solution will come at a terrible cost.
Ava and Zelda were named thusly because their parents, Marlin and Nadine, decided that their girls contained the entire alphabet between them, that together they represented everything from A to Z, and as a family they now had it all. It turns out they were being overly optimistic. As the years went by, Nadine succumbed to alcoholism and was diagnosed with a rare form of dementia. Marlin left, and by the time the story begins, he's on his third wife and has a new, young family. Ava escaped caring for her mother and the crumbling family vineyard/wine business to study French literature in Paris, after she caught Zelda hooking up with Ava's first love, Wyatt. A barn fire and the apparent death of Zelda causes Ava to return for the first time in two years.
Ava never believes that Zelda is actually dead. She hasn't spoken to Zelda since she left for Paris, but now she has hacked into Zelda's email, and she finds that Zelda is emailing herself messages meant for Ava. Every message has a theme, taken one by one from the letters of the alphabet. And each letter is a clue for how Ava can find Zelda. Along the way, Ava discovers more family secrets and learns some hard truths about herself, about her family, and about her relationship with Wyatt. Ava becomes convinced that Zelda intends to take over Ava's identity, yet she also must figure out exactly what that identity is.
There is no way this story has a neat, tidy, completely happy ending, because the whole point of the book is that life is messy because people and relationships are messy too. Ava spends her whole life trying to be neat and tidy in contrast to Zelda's sloppiness, to be the good twin, with goals and achievements. Yet, she winds up back home, with the same alcohol problems that Zelda and Nadine have, realizing that for all her efforts to escape, she is just as trapped as they are. Towards the novel's ending, Nadine says to Ava, “You know, you can start all kinds of relationships in your life. But you only start life once. And you start it with a limited number of people. Those people, they do something to you.”
This novel examines the beautiful yet scarred relationships we form with the people whom we begin our lives with. It acknowledges the pain we unintentionally inflict upon one another but also the love we seem born to give. The story is bittersweet, just like a fine wine, and it leaves you a lot to contemplate and mull over. It should be sipped rather than chugged. It will leave you a little wiser, and while you'll be happy you read it, you might also be a little sad too.
Despite this, I whole-heartedly recommend Dead Letters.
In the last year I have read several novels that feature Instagram influencers, like Big Summer, by Jennifer Weiner. Ellery Lloyd's People Like Her takes influencer culture to a whole new level and I found the book both fascinating and shocking. I'm late to the party when it comes to Instagram & none of my knowledge of it is first hand. But on its predecessor, Facebook, I've seen how people can over-idealize their lives and make themselves seem perfect. I've had to hide some friends' feeds because my frustration was just too high; seeing their choreographed posts that looked like a lifestyle magazine made me irrationally angry and that had to stop. "You're not a person anymore. You're just a phony caption and a posed photo." That line from the novel stood out to me because I've felt that way, both about some friends and even about myself. When I catch myself planning Facebook posts about moments in my life as I am living them - well, that's not good. And that phenomenon is just one element tackled in this brilliant novel.
People Like Her is written by a husband/wife team (Ellery Lloyd is a pseudonym) and there are three unreliable narrators. First is Emmy, an Instagram influencer with the handle "Mamabare". She is the breadwinner of the family, making money solely off all her Instagram posts about mothering, and the endorsements and side jobs she gets because of her influencer status. Dan, her husband, is a novelist whose first book was successful but now he can't seem to finish his second. He is at once jealous and horrified with Emmy's success, and scared of who she has become. The last narrator is an unnamed stalker whose story is revealed slowly. We know she lost her daughter and granddaughter and we know she blames Emmy, but we have to wait a while to find out why. Most importantly, we know she intends to cause Emmy untold suffering, something worse than having her child kidnapped, which this character could have done towards the beginning of the book. But she didn't because she decided that kidnapping Emmy's daughter would not make Emmy suffer enough.
The overriding theme of the novel is how the internet can steal a person's soul. And it's become quite apparent that Emmy has lost her humanity when she betrays her best friend. Yet, it's Emmy's work as an influencer that brings in money ad takes care of her family. In addition, Emmy provides hope, comfort, and community for roughly a million mothers, and without complaint she deals with internet trolls who threaten her and her children. So there are two sides.
My favorite part of the book was how all three main characters were deeply flawed, and Emmy and Dan were especially selfish, yet I couldn't hate any of them. I was always on their side when reading their chapters. Also, the suspense builds in a slow, burning way and it has great payout at the end with amazing characters arcs. This novel is skilled in every way and super entertaining. I wish I could read it again for the first time!
I highly recommend People Like Her
I'm a bit of an audio book junkie. I love opening my Audible Daily Deal email every morning. An author who is often featured is Lucy Dawson; several of her books have been on sale at one time or another. She's British and writes domestic suspense, and I'm usually entertained by her writing. I was mostly entertained with Everything You Told Me but I must confess, I only finished the book because I wanted to find out if the character who I thought was the villain from nearly the very beginning, was actually the villain. I didn't want to be right, but I was.
WARNING! SPOILERS ARE AHEAD. Don't read the rest of the rest of this post if you don't want the story spoiled for you! I can't review this book without talking about the ending and why I found it so frustrating and obvious.
Okay, so the story begins with the main character, Sally, drugged and confused, walking toward a cliff in Cornwall like she's going to jump. Someone stops her and they find what seems like a suicide note in her pocket, written in Sally's handwriting. Officials take over, contact her family, and Sally is sent home. Then the story flashes back to a couple of days before, and we learn about Sally's life. Her two children, Chloe and Theo, are super needy and only want her, not their dad, to hold them. Theo cries all the time. Sally's husband, Matthew, is sort of a jerk.
So is nearly everyone else in her life. Her parents imply that Sally is too fragile to handle being a mother. Her best friend, Liv, shuts her out after what she thinks is a suicide attempt by Sally. Sally's brother is engaged to a horrible woman named Kelly, and everyone takes her side in the conflict between Kelly and Sally. The only person that seems at all cool is Matthew's mom, Caroline. She is a divorced psychiatrist, super sophisticated and stylish, and very good at what she does.
I mean, it was so obvious that Caroline would be the villain. As I wrote about in a previous post, it's nearly impossible to find a major female character over 50, whose primary role isn't as someone's mother or wife, who ISN'T a villain. Caroline could have been such a great character, but as it turned out, she just didn't like Sally. That was her motivation when she formed a plan to help Matthew, and she drugged Sally and put her in a taxi to Cornwall because Matthew was having an affair with Liv and was in some financial trouble, and this would get him out of a bad situation because... okay. That part made no sense.
Honestly though, as a writer, I find coming up with a good plot and character motivations for antagonists to be extremely challenging. I'm sure I'd have a hard time coming up with something better. That said, I wish I could recommend Everything You Told Me, but I can't.
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Just about every line of J. Courtney Sullivan's Friends and Strangers resonated with me, but one part in particular very much stood out. One of the protagonists, Sam, is having a conversation with the other protagonist's father-in-law, George. Sam comes from a working class family and she goes to an expensive private college, for which she has shouldered the burden of her tuition. George was a limo-service business owner until Uber took over, and now he spends his days fixated on "the hollow tree" - his theories about corporate greed and and the complicity of the American public. Anyway, Sam has friends who work in the college cafeteria's kitchen, where she did work-study to help pay her tuition, and Sam inadvertently did something to hurt them. When she laments about her guilt to George, he mentions that she needs to remember that she is privileged in ways that her friends are not. He tells her that it doesn't matter how much money her family has or does not have. She will soon have a college diploma, and that will give her privileges that her friends from the kitchen never will have.
This is so true, yet as an educator I don't remember this nearly enough. Our society has all sorts of disparities when it comes to race, class, and socio-economic factors. Yet education plays into all of that, and this is examined in Friends and Strangers in a subtle and compelling way.
That doesn't mean the book is dry or hard to get into. Both the story and the characters are engaging from the first page. Elisabeth, a writer and thirty-something mother, has just relocated from Brooklyn to a college town with her husband, Andrew. She is having trouble adjusting and finding time to write, so she hires Sam to be a nanny. But Sam becomes Elisabeth's best friend in the town, and the two women develop an attachment to each other when their relationships with other people in their lives become strained. All the while, their levels of privilege are examined and personal boundaries are explored.
It may sound like not much happens, but so much happens, and I knew both Elisabeth and Sam and I really cared what happened to them. Both characters are flawed and they both make terrible mistakes, yet they were completely relatable, even when their friendship is in crisis and the two of them are at odds with each other.
“As you made your way through life, there were people who stuck, the ones who stayed around forever and whom you came to need as much as you needed water or air. Others were meant to keep you company for a time. In the moment, you rarely knew which would be which.”
Ultimately, the question becomes, will Sam and Elisabeth "stick" for each other, or will they keep each other company for a short time? I won't give away the answer, but I will say the impact they each have on the other's life is big. The impact of this novel is big too. I highly recommend Friends and Strangers.
Big Summer, by acclaimed author Jennifer Weiner, was my Spring Break read. It was a good choice for escapism, and I could definitely use some escapism since travelling wasn't an option and my chilly-Minneapolis-world offered low temps in the 20s. But in the world of Big Summer, it's 80 degrees and Daphne travels to Cape Cod to attend the opulent wedding of her estranged high school friend, mean-girl/multi-millionaire/influencer Drue Cavanaugh. Daphne is also a social media influencer and she's just scored a deal to promote an up & coming fashion designer as a plus-size spokesperson, via Instagram. This is an important detail, because while Big Summer is at once a mystery, a commentary on female friendship, and a story about love (both romantic and familial), it's also about our identities both online and off-line. Image plays a big factor in how we see ourselves, but a million followers can't save us from loneliness or heartache.
It had been years since I read a book by Jennifer Weiner. I loved Good in Bed, which was her first novel. It came out two decades ago, and I've since read many of Weiner's other books and I have liked them all, though some I liked more than others. It's not uncommon for Weiner to have an overweight female protagonist who struggles with self-image and judgement from mean, thin people. You don't have to be overweight to identify with what Daphne goes through, as she deals with harsh treatment from her seemingly perfect peers, or struggles with body image and food cravings, yet becomes determined to love herself even as others deem her unworthy. I liked Daphne a lot and was rooting for her the entire time. The only thing I didn't buy was how she always seemed to be the only overweight person in the room. Maybe that was just her perception, or maybe that's the reality with posh East Coast get-togethers, but here in middle class Minnesota you never have to look too far to find someone who isn't rail thin. But nonetheless, I get that Daphne constantly feels like an outsider due to her size, and this is one of her consistent struggles throughout the novel. She has to feel big in comparison to everyone else, so that sort of description is necessary. I also liked how her love interest, Nick, was totally into her and saw her as beautiful. I very much bought their relationship, even if it was a little rushed.
There were a lot of similarities between Big Summer and Good in Bed, especially when it came to the protagonists. Yet one of the key differences is that Good in Bed was written before social media had taken over all our lives, and Big Summer is ABOUT how social media has taken over all our lives. Early in the novel, Daphne is babysitting a boy who, in his own way, struggles with image and self-worth. He asks Daphne when things will get better, and she responds, “Here’s the good news: even if things don’t get better, you can always make them look good on the internet.” Daphne knows that lying on the internet is something everyone does, and she remarks, “In space, nobody could hear you scream; on the Internet, nobody could tell if you were lying.” But Daphne tries to be honest with her followers and with herself. She tells one of her followers, "Make sure you have people who love you, the real you, not the Instagram you. If you can’t be brave, pretend to be brave, and if you can’t do that yet, know that you aren’t alone. Everyone you see is struggling. Nobody has it all figured out.”
By the end of the novel, Daphne still doesn't have it "all" figured out. But she's figured out a lot, and both her emotional journey and the mystery at the center of the novel make for an enjoyable, worthwhile read. I highly recommend Big Summer.
My Book Reviews
I love novels! My favorite genres are high-end women's fiction, suspense, and psychological thrillers, but occasionally I'll also pick up some chick lit or YA. I mostly read books on my kindle, and I also listen to audio books every morning when I go for my run.