Book Review: Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach

Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach

By Elizabeth Walker

There’s something just fascinating about twins. While more common than they used to be, thanks to advances in modern fertility treatments, twins – particularly identical twins – continue to captivate the mind. Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach is engrossing not only for its portrayal of its monozygotic heroines but also for the deliberate unraveling of their shared history.

The reader first encounters Ava Antipova flying back from Paris to her childhood home, a vineyard in upstate New York. She has come back to make arrangements after her twin sister, Zelda, has been reported dead in a barn fire. While Ava goes through the emotionally draining motions of organizing the funeral, talking to the police, and tending to her aging mother, she finds herself doubting the story of her estranged sister’s demise. Her suspicions are confirmed when she begins receiving emails from Zelda from beyond the grave.

As Ava follows the clues left by her sister, we learn about the family sufferings she and Zelda have shared: a father who abandoned them, a mother facing a degenerative illness, and familial powerlessness over alcohol. Ava tries to untangle the mysteries that shroud Zelda’s disappearance while the reader works to make sense of the events that brought them to this point.

There is no doubting that Dolan-Leach is a gifted writer, and this is certainly a remarkable debut. The story is thoroughly absorbing in that way where you think you’ll read just a few more pages and end up staying up late into the night to find out what happens. That said, there are places in the book where the writing seems almost too calculated, too deliberate. Whether or not the prose flows easily for the author, it should feel natural to the reader, and Dead Letters perhaps isn’t quite there yet. Nonetheless, this is an enjoyable read, and it keeps the reader’s attention right up until its surprise ending.