Published by Random House
Publication date: February 21st 2017
Parents expecting identical twins often decide to get whimsical with their children’s names and Marlon and Nadine Antipova are no different. To paraphrase the pretentious Marlon—his daughters would be the beginning and the end, explaining how Ava and Zelda came to get their names. This family story is the only sentimental one found in Caite Dolan-Leach’s mesmerizing debut, Dead Letters. The novel opens with twenty-five-year-old Ava on a plane, heading home after two years away because she’s gotten an email from her mother that her sister is dead. Which sums up relationships in this family- an email telling you your twin sister is dead. Except, given what she knows of Zelda and “feels” about her twin, Ava doesn’t believe it. Zelda’s not dead.
To say the Antipova family is dysfunctional is putting it mildly. The only thing they all have in common is an overwhelming and abiding love of alcohol, which makes the choice of owning a winery understandable but dangerous. This is a fractured family—Dad decamped years ago to a new wife and life in California and Ava lives in Paris pursuing a PhD in literature. Only Zelda and Nadine still live on the family’s vineyard in upstate New York, with Nadine sinking deeper into early onset dementia and Zelda trying to hold the failing family business and her mother together. Zelda and Ava haven’t seen each other or spoken since Zelda slept with Ava’s boyfriend. Now, Ava is back in the home she wants no part of, with a mother who thinks she’s her twin and a father who is his usual charming, but ineffectual self. As she surveys the ashes of the winery’s barn—from which unidentifiable human remains have been pulled—her sense that she is being played by her sister is confirmed when an email arrives…from Zelda.
And so the hunt begins. Zelda has felt abandoned by Ava and now wants her sister to play with her again—in the form of clues as to what she’s done. In this macabre treasure hunt the clues are the letters of the alphabet, in order. Zelda has gone from being ignored by Ava to being in control of her sister. While they wait for dental identification of the remains in the barn, the clues pile up and Ava uses looking like her sister to get private information from doctors and bankers about her life in the last two years. Not surprisingly, none of it is good. All of this, plus missing her twin, has led Zelda to take some extreme action, but what is her game?
Front loading a novel with the kind of drama found in Dead Letters is risky, but Dolan-Leach wins big with her portrayal of the Antipovas. Their love of alcohol is a novel in itself, which could become tiresome, but she uses it to great effect. Even Ava is not immune
But all I can think is that I need a bottle of something, and somewhere quiet to consume it.
The fact that this is only one small component of a much larger whole is indicative of a writer with the confidence to go all in with deeply flawed characters and an intricate plot. At any one point, Dead Letters could have gone over the edge into an abyss of the unbelievable, but the guide wire of Dolan-Leach’s writing maintains perfect tension and credibility from start to finish.
Last week I wrote about a novel that was like the best college bender you’ve ever been on. In that case, the author seemed as out of control as the reader was going to be reading her novel—but in a good way. Dolan-Leach is much more wicked. She is the person handing you the brew that is about to blow your mind, but she’s stone cold sober and writes a tale of suspense so perfectly balanced that you’ll follow wherever she leads and be happy to wake up with a book hangover. At 30% in I was certain I knew what the surprise was going be. Then again at 50%. And again. Every time I was wrong and that is as good as it gets in the world of book love—sharp, snarky, intelligent writing; a story that bends and twists like taffy and is just as chewy and delicious in its details. It’s only February but for readers Christmas is here because Dead Letters is a literary gift.