Book Review: Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach

Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Publisher:  Random House

Summary:   Ava Antipova has her reasons for running away: a failing family vineyard, a romantic betrayal, a mercurial sister, an absent father, a mother slipping into dementia. In Paris, Ava acquires a French boyfriend and a taste for much better wine, and erases her past. But two years later, she must return to upstate New York. Her twin sister, Zelda, is dead.

Even in a family of alcoholics, Zelda Antipova was the wild one, notorious for her mind games and destructive behavior. Stuck tending the vineyard and the girls’ increasingly unstable mother, Zelda is allegedly burned alive when she passes out in the barn with a cigarette. But Ava finds the official explanation a little too neat. A little too Zelda. Then she receives a cryptic message—from her sister. Just as Ava suspected, Zelda’s playing one of her games. In fact, she’s outdone herself, leaving a series of clues to her disappearance. Ava follows the trail laid just for her, thinking like her sister, keeping her secrets, immersing herself in Zelda’s drama. Along the way, Zelda forces Ava to confront their twisted history and the boy who broke her heart. But why? Is Zelda trying to punish Ava for leaving? To teach her a lesson? Or is she simply trying to write her own ending?

Caite Dolan-Leach’s debut suspense takes readers on a literary scavenger hunt for clues concealed throughout the seemingly idyllic wine country, hidden in plain sight on social media, and buried at the heart of one tremendously dysfunctional, utterly unforgettable family.

This was a fast, engrossing read that while a great page-turner made me stop on a few occasions and side-eye the story. It's one of those books you read where you blaze through it but if you think about it a bit more you can see where the stitches didn't meet up with the panels perfectly. This would be practically disastrous in a mystery novel. This ultimately didn't read like the mystery I was expecting given the blurb so disaster averted. I can't believe I'm special for always believing that what happened, happened but I didn't mind joing Ava on this vision quest to find herself & her twin, Zelda.

The Antipovas, as a group, are a sniping clutch of multi-generational alcoholics who are truly no fun to spend time with. Their crumbling environs are the physical manifestation of their ennui and turpitude. I honestly think that even without the alcohol, they'd have been this way. I did pull for Ava and while I felt for the plight of Zelda and Nadine, I didn't think Ava was wrong for having tried to carve out a better existence away from her family. While Zelda too, got a raw deal in the parent lottery, I didn't think that if one burned all were required to (pun intended). Zelda's letters were acerbic, cruel and so well penned that I was hard pressed to believe she really was also suffering from Wernicke's encephalopathy (that was one of the explanations worthy of my side-eye at the end) woman we're told she was. Marlon's charm didn't come through to me in the reading but it's said he is and he has had multiple wives to show for it so... okay. Wyatt was benign and served his purpose. Overall, I felt the author did quite well with these characters.

As one who enjoys the occasional glass of wine, this has made me decide to give that a pass this week. Worth a read if you're looking for a twisty story of twins and like your families of the deeply dysfunctional variety. If you're a vocabularian, closet or otherwise, this will be a fun read. If you're looking for a true mystery, this isn't that. I'd say this is more of a gothic contemporary literary fiction. Three stars instead of four only because I was disappointed that this wasn't the mystery the blurb purported it to be. Points for a great cover! I'll definitely read more by Dolan-Leach.

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