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Book Summary and Analysis: "Dead Letters" by Caite Dolan-Leach

An avid book nerd, Jennifer Branton loves to share her favorite book finds with her readers.


The Second Child

The Antipova family planned to name their twins Ava and Zelda. They were from "From A to Z," the parents joked, but the wrong baby was handed over first, setting the name theme askew in Caite Dolan-Leach's Dead Letters.

Ava, the second born, should have been Zelda, and she wonders if this has effected her life. While she was more reserved, she ran from her family the first chance that she had to attend her schooling overseas. She eventually received a PHD in Paris. Zelda stayed behind to tend to the family vineyard and take care of their mother that is now stricken with dementia.

Ava receives an email that her sister had been smoking in the bar that she sometimes slept in when she wasn't in the trailer on the family property. After a body is found burned in the bar, it is assumed that Zelda has passed away, but knowing the ways of her wild sister, Ava doesn't believe that her sister is actually dead.

Backtracking through the trailer after she returns home after nearly two years of no contact with her family, Ava learns that Zelda has done everything to set up the perfect trap for the last two years.

Z Is For Zelda

With a set of scapegoats in place to point Ava along the way of Zelda's demented scavenger hunt, Ava finds out that the phone the police have in their possession is a burner. Zelda had claimed to have purchased the phone in Paris when she came to visit Ava and make amends.

Only Zelda never made such a trip that Ava was aware of, and she didn't give permission to activate a phone in her name. Yet there are charges for a plane ticket and a hotel that Zelda had checked into. Had Zelda been so close just to spy on her sister to begin her dangerous game?

Finding Zelda's real phone, and email clues that she was sending to herself in an "A-Z scavenger hunt" that Zelda created, Ava finds out that there is no activity Zelda's bank accounts. Somehow, she must be paying in all cash.

Following leads, from a neighbor that swears the family owes for farm equipment, Ava finds out that her sister has taken a $500,000 loan against her mother's property, and never made a single payment. With the property about to be foreclosed upon, Ava, pretending to be Zelda to get more information on the loan, she pays what she can, finding that Zelda has only around $300 in her bank account. Ava concludes that she must have been using the loan to live off using it as cash.

Told through sometimes unhelpful and confusing flashbacks of the girls youth to explain pictures that are later found, and the appearance of their grandmother, Ava begins to share her suspicions even to the police that Zelda is playing everyone.

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Mother and Nina

Ava begins to understand that her mother's relationship with her sister Nina, which ended in a tragic drowning- a lesson that Zelda somehow found out about and wanted Ava to know what it was like to feel the loss of a sibling by enlisting people to help her stage her death for her family.

While taking her mother out on a boat, she falls into the water and Ava is unable to save her. While the whole story their mother in her condition always confuses Ava for Zelda, using words to punish her that she was "the one that ran away" through seeking education- although the real reason for the trek was the falling out of the twins.

Ava knows hasn't found Zelda during her follow through the alphabet, but she seems to finally have understood her and the isolation and abandonment that Zelda must have felt when Ava fled the country for college.

Dead Sisters

While this book was marketed as thriller and mystery, I have to agree with a few reviews that where the writing was on par, the story really suffered from uninteresting characters, a slow moving plot, and never paid off without a final stand off between the twins.

Where they have learned to have appreciation and love perhaps for the relationship they once had and lost- I don't get the feeling from the flashback portions that the sisters were even that close and didn't really seem to share much other than DNA. While Zelda drifted into quirky behavior, drugs, and other young adult angst, it was a relationship with a boy that was more of a misunderstanding than anything else that cost the sister's their relationship- what little they seemed to have.

Working in the later angle of the mother's story and her own loss of a sister, didn't seem to hinge enough on why Zelda chose to toy with the emotions of her family and especially her sister.

I walk away from this book, largely bored, and with no more clarity on the relationship of the sisters. What could have been more of a mystery with focus on the clues and adding tension, most of this book falls flat and I couldn't wait to see if there was a final ending point where the sister's made up.

We still don't know what happens in the aftermath. The mother is dead, Zelda still hasn't appeared, and the family property is about to be foreclosed on. While the story likes to blame Zelda's rebellion on the family alcoholism, it isn't enough to really pin down a solid story.

Really the police wouldn't have been able to track the emails that Zelda was sending? Why was she so hell bent on revenge and punishing Ava for moving on with her life?

Dead Letters wasn't a bad read in terms of the writing. Unfamiliar with other works of the author, I'm not sure if this is just a story I couldn't connect with. Setting my expectations for something akin to the follow the clues of a Gone Girl, Dead Letters, never has that satisfying payoff that should come from a book of this genre.

Where is Zelda? Does anyone even care? Where did Ava go from here? Does it matter?

It is really a disappointment to walk away from a story like this with nothing.

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