You know that famous first line of Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina? He wrote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” First time novelist, Caite Dolan-Leach must have kept this is mind when she forged the Antipova family into being in Dead Letters; I can’t remember the last time I encountered such a twisted group of people.
The novel begins with Ava Antipova returning from Paris after she’s learned that her estranged twin sister, Zelda, died in a fire. We learn that Ava has refused to speak to Zelda for two years because she found her and Ava’s “boyfriend” Wyatt together, but she knows that deep down she was looking for any way to get away from her family’s failing vineyard and their mother’s increasingly erratic behavior.
But Ava was always the good girl, earning straight A’s and going to Cornell to study viticulture and oenology. After her father, Marlon, abandoned the family, she knew it would be her duty to run the family’s vineyard. Finding Zelda and Wyatt together was just her excused to high-tail it across the Atlantic where she could entirely switch gears.
Not for a second does Ava believe Zelda is really dead. After two years of silence on Ava’s end, Zelda has done something drastic and dramatic. Pretending to die in a fire? That’s exactly something Zelda would do. Or so Ava thinks.
When she returns to her family’s vineyard in the Seven Lakes region of New York, she begins receiving emails and text messages from Zelda, taking her on a treasure hunt of sorts, from A-Z. Ava and Zelda were meant to be the end all, be all. The Alpha and the Omega. Until Ava left everything behind. Now Zelda is showing her exactly what she let happen when she left. Ava has to figure out each clue before she can reach Zelda, and who knows what she’ll find when she reaches her.
Dolan-Leach does a fantastic job of using this hunt for Zelda as a way to introduce information slowly throughout the novel about the Antipova family and their extremely fucked up history. At some point in the novel after Ava is forced to interact with her (and Zelda’s) old flame, Wyatt, she admits straight-up that she and her twin have been functioning alcoholics since they were teenagers, and her parents are far worse.
The Antipova matriarch, Nadine, is a nasty piece of work that the reader will spend just about the entire novel hating. Granted, there are moments where you feel genuinely bad for her because she is, after all, and alcohol with increasingly severe dementia, but those moments are few and in-between. For this most part, she confuses Ava with Zelda and won’t cooperate unless she’s given alcohol as a pacifier. But in her lucid moments, she reveals little small pieces of information that change the tide of the story and Ava’s search.
The author made each member of the Antipova family equally reprehensible. All of them do things will make the reader clench his or her teeth or cringe in horror. I mean—drugs, sex, alcohol, debt, dark family secrets—it’s all present and accounted for, though this novel really can’t be pegged as a mystery or suspense novel in the traditional sense. It’s more of a family saga that involved putting the pieces of past and present together to make a clear picture.
What I loved most about Dead Letters was Dolan-Leach’s obvious love of language. She makes letters (A-Z) an integral part of the narrative. For example, Ava goes to Paris to study Oulipo writers and the work of Edgar Allan Poe. These writers have utilized constraints in their writing, believing the hindrance would produce more creative work. Ava’s fascination with this becomes a springboard for Zelda’s clues; places, people, and things are hidden within Zelda’s verbose emails.
Dead Letters is a dark exploration of family malfunction, alcoholism, mental illness, and the ties that bind siblings together in their most painful moments. Though it might not be the mystery it touts itself to be, Caite Dolan-Leach’s masterful work is worth the read. Who doesn’t love an unhappy family?