Published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on April 4, 2017
Genres: YA, YA Contemporary
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Juliet Young always writes letters to her mother, a world-traveling photojournalist. Even after her mother's death, she leaves letters at her grave. It's the only way Juliet can cope.
Declan Murphy isn't the sort of guy you want to cross. In the midst of his court-ordered community service at the local cemetery, he's trying to escape the demons of his past.
When Declan reads a haunting letter left beside a grave, he can't resist writing back. Soon, he's opening up to a perfect stranger, and their connection is immediate. But neither Declan nor Juliet knows that they're not actually strangers. When life at school interferes with their secret life of letters, sparks will fly as Juliet and Declan discover truths that might tear them apart.
Diversity: 1 – Tokenism
Racial-Ethnic: 1 (Declan’s best friend Rev was adopted by black parents; Declan’s community service supervisor is Hispanic; Juliet’s friend/photography rival has the surname Cho, presumably marking him as Asian)
Intersectionality: 0 (Juliet’s thoughts on the refugees her mom photographed are… ew)
Brigid Kemmerer made her name and developed a cult with her YA paranormal Elementals series, but I still haven’t gotten around to reading my copy of that series’s first book Storm. Funny how I end up reading her foray into YA contemporary first thanks to the TBR jar! Maybe it’s setting me up for disappointment to read an author’s most recent work first and then go backwards, but Letters to the Lost was pretty darn good.
Though the lack of labels on the POVs is a bit irritating, you quickly catch on that our two leads narrate alternating chapters. Juliet is struggling after her mom’s death in a car crash and her worry that she caused it by begging her mom to come home from abroad early; Declan had a meltdown a few months before the novel’s start and is busy paying for it via community service in the local cemetery. As they communicate in letters and later in online chat without knowing who the other really is, they end up in each other’s orbits in real life and their interactions aren’t always pretty.
Both Juliet and Declan’s characterizations are solid and Declan’s situation in particular pulled at my heartstrings. The loss of a parent is a YA staple, but Declan instead gets a semi-aloof mom, a hateful stepdad, a hole in his heart where his deceased sister used to be, and an alcoholic dad in jail for killing that sister. His conflicts come with a lot of secrets and as they unravel, they prove themselves vivid and memorable. Declan is a character you won’t forget just because of what he’s been through
The choice to alternate POVs each chapter and the small, subtle ways the traumas in Declan’s and Juliet’s lives are complicated lend strength to the novel’s pacing and make it easy to read the entire book at once despite it being 400 pages long. I honestly didn’t expect to read as much of this at one time as I did, but I couldn’t put it down! Kemmerer leaves a subtle reference or reveal in each chapter, so even if you need to put the book down to do life things, you don’t really want to.
Another way Letters to the Lost keeps you hooked? The ridiculous number of twists that complicate Declan’s and Juliet’s already-complicated situations. Juliet’s mom died in a car crash? NOPE, NOT THAT SIMPLE. Declan and his anger issues and the reason he’s stuck with court-ordered community service? WHOO BOY, WAIT UNTIL YOU REALLY HEAR ABOUT HIS BIOLOGICAL DAD. A few of them almost steered into melodramatic soap opera territory, but they still managed to wring genuine emotion from me. Honest to God, I teared up at least five times.
The one major dent in the novel is how Juliet talks about the refugees and other beleaguered children her mother photographed around the world. These are kids who survived airstrikes, were escaping war, and otherwise went through things a privileged white girl like Juliet would never have to and yet she’s still saying she knows how they feel. NO JULIET, YOU DO NOT KNOW HOW THEY FEEL.
Specifically, Juliet mentions a specific photo that often makes the rounds as one of the most disturbing, controversial photos ever taken: The vulture and the little girl, a 1993 photo taken by Kevin Carter. Description of it: a Sudanese girl stopped to rest on her way to a UN feeding center and a vulture landed a few yards away from her, waiting for when it could make her its next meal. The little girl is so starved her bones are visible, she’s tiny, and she honestly looks like she could die at any moment. Her life has been (presumably, based on Sudanese history) destroyed by the Second Sudanese Civil War and its aftermath.
And Juliet, ever the privileged white girl, has the gall to say she feels like the girl and presumes to understand her.
Sure, she says she sometimes feels like the vulture instead or feels like the photographer (he committed suicide about a year after talking the photo), but it’s still wildly gross of her to say such a thing. Though she acknowledges that the children and people in her mother’s photos are real people, she uses them as conduits for her emotions. Like objects. It’s nasty and deeply unnecessary.
Its sensitivity toward refugees needs some serious work, but Letters to the Lost is otherwise a strong contemporary YA novel that evokes genuine emotions from the reader. Am I still excited to read Storm eventually? Despite some of the criticism I’ve heard, yeah. Maybe the TBR jar will show some love and spit that title out next time I get to pick out a TBR book instead of a review book.