Ava Antipova’s family is a mess. Her father abandoned them and their failing vineyard, her mother has all the symptoms of early dementia, and her identical twin sister, Zelda, betrays her with a boy she loves. So she runs away to Paris, and she starts a life there with a French boyfriend and develops a taste for (better) wine. But when news arrives that her sister has died, Ava must return to upstate New York to pick up the pieces of her fractured family. Only: is Zelda really dead? Because the emails start arriving, and Ava wonders if Zelda has played her best trick yet.
Dolan-Leach’s debut novel is a twisty, beautifully written novel that has hints of Agatha Christie while also providing a fresh perspective on the literary mystery genre. Her characters are starkly drawn and her prose is oftentimes darkly funny and smartly observant. The book’s central mystery will be compelling enough for some readers, but it’s Dolan-Leach’s careful crafting of her complicated characters that make the book a standout in its own right.
The book’s ending will surprise some readers while leaving others feeling weirdly let down. But it’s also clear that Dolan-Leach isn’t that concerned with the ending so much as the journey to get there. Ava is a fully realized character, full of self-deprecating observations about herself, and her thorny feelings about her family feel realistic and terrible all at the same time. There’s a lot of interesting ruminations on families and sisters and the pervasiveness of alcoholism here, and it’s a memorable book, if perhaps a bit overly long.
An author to watch.
Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach. Random House: 2017. Library copy.