Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2
There are some tropes I will never get tired of in YA. One of them is the trope of secret communication bringing unlike-minded people together. It’s even better when they exchange handwritten notes or letters. The use of that trope as the keystone in Brigid Kemmerer’s new novel Letters to the Lost made me super excited to read it, and I was not disappointed.
Kemmerer’s novel is about Juliet, a teen girl grieving the loss of her famous warzone photographer mother, and Declan, a boy assigned to community service after one tragic night that spiraled out of his broken past. At its heart, the novel is a beautiful, complex, funny and sad story about loss, grief, redemption and love. I also want to note that, in service of not spoiling anything because this is a book that truly reveals itself over time, my review might come off as a little bit vague.
I loved these characters. Juliet wasn’t the most “likeable” character but as someone who has lost a very close relative and spends a great deal of time with their gravestone I was really able to connect to her emotion and pain. I was also able to connect to Declan’s regret and pain over his past. I really loved how Kemmerer showed that the reckless actions and irresponsibility of adults have heartbreaking consequences on their children, which I think she captures with great complexity, depth and skill in his narrative.
I was also really able to connect to Juliet’s realization that the adults we look up to in our families aren’t always what they seem. This turned out to be a theme in the novel that connected Juliet and Declan’s story. I thought that was a great lesson to be inserted into a YA book and one that I wish more books would tackle.
Interestingly, one of the best parts of this book for me was the relationship that Juliet and Declan had with the adults around them. I was rooting for Juliet to sort out her emotions with not only her dead mother, but also her father who she’d been having difficulty communicating with since her mother passed away. Seeing their relationship unfold was one of my favorite parts of this book. I also loved seeing the friendship between Rowan and Juliet, and would have liked to see that developed a little more.
In Declan’s narrative, I found myself pleasantly surprised at how intricate and not-surface level his relationship was with his mother and stepfather. Kemmerer really pushes Declan beyond the trope of the “secretly sensitive bad boy.” His emotions towards his family and his best friend, Rev, came off the page. In short, Declan is one of the most complex male characters in YA that I’ve read in a while.
I also really, really loved how Kemmerer developed Declan and Juliet’s relationships with the teachers who helped them. I still remember the teachers who I felt saw and understood me in high school, the ones who helped redirect my path as a somewhat troubled teen into the success I’ve had today. It was a joy to see that unfold on the pages of this novel. I found myself hoping that teachers will pick up this book and understand how important it is to have empathy and understanding for students, especially the ones with a “reputation.”
Of course, Letters to the Lost was not without its faults. The writing style was a little clunky throughout, which occasionally took me out of the story. I also really wish that Kemmerer had been more specific and paid more attention to Juliet’s panic attacks and the specific symptoms of her complicated grief, as I felt that would have added more dimension and emotion to the novel. Honestly, this is the type of book where I keep realizing new things that I love about it.
However, these minor issues were largely easy to look past and admire all the beauty and strength that this story contains. Fans of Kasie West’s novel P.S. I Like You, who also enjoy the darker side of YA, will love this book that explores romance, friendship, family, grief and more. I could go on and on about it more, but I think it would be better if you read it or picked it up right now. You won’t regret it.