2017 Reviews · contemporary fiction · crime · mystery · psychological · suspense · thriller

Book Review: Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach

Title: Dead Lettersdead letters small

Author:  Caite Dolan-Leach

Published: May 24th 2017

Publisher: Atlantic Books via Allen & Unwin

Pages: 352

Genres:  Fiction, Contemporary, Mystery, Psychological, Thriller, Suspense

RRP: $29.99

Rating: 3 stars

A missing woman leads her twin sister on a twisted scavenger hunt in this clever debut novel of suspense for readers of Luckiest Girl Alive and Reconstructing Amelia.

Ahoy, Ava! Welcome home, my sweet jet-setting twin! So glad you were able to wrest yourself away from your dazzling life in the City of Light; I hope my death hasn’t interrupted anything too crucial.

Ava Antipova has her reasons for running away: a failing family vineyard, a romantic betrayal, a mercurial sister, an absent father, a mother slipping into dementia. In Paris, Ava renounces her terribly practical undergraduate degree, acquires a French boyfriend and a taste for much better wine, and erases her past. Two years later, she must return to upstate New York. Her twin sister, Zelda, is dead.

Even in a family of alcoholics, Zelda Antipova was the wild one, notorious for her mind games and destructive behavior. Stuck tending the vineyard and the girls increasingly unstable mother, Zelda was allegedly burned alive when she passed out in the barn with a lit cigarette. But Ava finds the official explanation a little too neat. A little too Zelda. Then she receives a cryptic message from her sister.

Just as Ava suspected, Zelda’s playing one of her games. In fact, she’s outdone herself, leaving a series of clues about her disappearance. With the police stuck on a red herring, Ava follows the trail laid just for her, thinking like her sister, keeping her secrets, immersing herself in Zelda’s drama and her outlandish circle of friends and lovers. Along the way, Zelda forces her twin to confront their twisted history and the boy who broke Ava’s heart. But why? Is Zelda trying to punish Ava for leaving, or to teach her a lesson? Or is she simply trying to write her own ending?

Featuring a colorful, raucous cast of characters, Caite Dolan-Leach’s debut thriller takes readers on a literary scavenger hunt for clues concealed throughout the seemingly idyllic wine country, hidden in plain sight on social media, and buried at the heart of one tremendously dysfunctional, utterly unforgettable family.

My review:

Dead Letters, by first time novelist Caite Dolan-Leach, is the story of Ava and Zelda Antipova, who are identical twins. The twins are estranged at the time of one of the twin’s tragic death in a fire. The remaining twin, Ava, isn’t at all convinced that her sister, who loved nothing more than drama and attention, is really dead. Soon after her death, Ava receives messages from the grave from her sister, sending her on a twisted scavenger hunt.

Dead Letters is the debut novel from writer Caite Dolan-Leach. It is best described as a psychological mystery novel. When Paris based student Ava Antipova receives word through email that her identical twin sister has died in a fire that took place on her family’s vineyard property in Finger Lakes, in upstate New York, she immediately returns home. For Ava, home is not a sanctuary. Ava left home over two years ago, after a terrible betrayal on behalf of her sister and high school boyfriend, Wyatt. There are also her parents to contend with. Ava’s mother Nadine is one messed up lady. Suffering from a degenerative illness, Nadine’s days are filled with alcohol and not much else. Her relationship with her daughter Ava, her less favourable twin daughter, is tense. It is no wonder Ava dreads her return home. The twin’s father Nolan also returns home in the wake of his daughter’s death. Nolan traded his family for another many years ago. He is an emotionally distant man, who fills the gap in his life with alcohol. Abuse of alcohol forms a significant part of Dead Letters, as the Antipovas own a disintegrating vineyard. The focus of Dead Letters becomes zoned in on Ava’s hunt for her sister Zelda, who she firmly believes staged her own death. Through the use of letters, emails, text messages and facebook posts, a scavenger hunt following the letters in between A for Ava and Z for Zelda form the basis of this search for Zelda. Is this an elaborate plan to get her sisters attention or is Zelda really dead?

Dead Letters is a novel I have seen around a fair bit on social media and on the Goodreads community. It definitely caught my eye and I was keen to give it a try, despite seeing some mixed responses on Goodreads and other blogs I follow. It took me awhile to get into this novel and my mind seemed to wander a fair bit during my reading of this book. This is perhaps an indication of my response to the book, which was pretty average.

The main narrator of the book, Ava, is a strange as well as unlikeable young woman. She is hard to get close to, which is in part of a reflection of her difficult upbringing. We learn through the flashbacks written by Dolan-Leach that Ava was the less favourable twin. She lives in the shadow of her wilder and more enigmatic twin. Her mother Nadine’s obvious preference for Zelda is clear and it has clearly impacted on who Ava is as an adult. Nadine’s constant alcohol binges and spiralling depression based on her degenerative illness means she has been an absent mother. Her ex husband and the twin’s father Nolan isn’t much better. He escaped the toxic clutches on his ex wife many years ago and has remained detached from his daughters ever since. There really are some complicated and messed up relations that emerge from this dysfunctional family.  I thought the characterisation on the whole of these protagonists was solid, despite all of them being unlikeable.

The narrative follows Ava’s search in the present to find her sister via the clues provided to her which links to the letters between A to Z. There are also flashbacks to the twin’s childhood, formative years and the time just prior to their estrangement. The narrative builds a strong picture of the twins. The pace was set at a steady pace but for reasons I am still not sure about, I did find my mind wandering. I wasn’t completely invested in this storyline and I really didn’t like any of the characters. Having said that, I did feel the need to continue reading to the end of the novel to find out the final fate of Zelda. When I reached the end of the novel I felt a bit underwhelmed. There had been so much built up to this point and when I got there it didn’t have quite the level of impact that I seemed to be expecting.

Dead Letters takes a clever concept, infusing letters of the alphabet with a final set of puzzling messages from the grave, sending a sister on a frenzied hunt to find her estranged twin. I liked the concept but had difficulties connecting with this dysfunctional family unit.  Dead Letters is a dark and twisted tale of secrets, lies, betrayals and the intricate bond between twin sisters. Make up your own mind on this one.

Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach was published on May 24th 2017 by Atlantic Books via Allen & Unwin. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.

To learn more about the author of Dead Letters, Caite Dolan-Leach visit here.




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