Dead Letters

Dead Letters

by Caite Dolan-Leach


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399588853
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/21/2017
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 824,449
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Caite Dolan-Leach is a writer and literary translator. She was born in the Finger Lakes and is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and the American University in Paris. Dead Letters is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt


A born creator of myths, my sister always liked to tell the story of how we were misnamed. She was proud of it, as though she, as a tiny blue infant, had bent kismet to her will and appropriated the name that was supposed to be mine. My parents were trying to be clever (before they lost the ability to be anything other than utterly miserable), and our names were meant to be part of our self-­constructed, quirky family mythology. A to Z, Ava and Zelda. The first-­born would be A for Ava, and the second-­born would be Z for Zelda, and together we would be the whole alphabet for my deluded and briefly optimistic parents, both of whom were located unimpressively in the middle: M for Marlon and N for Nadine. My father was himself named for a film star, and with his usual shortsighted narcissism he sought to create some sort of large-­looming legacy for his burgeoning small family. Burgeon we would not.

Born second, I was destined for the end of the alphabet. But my sister was Zelda from her first screaming breath, wild and indomitable until her final immolation. A careless nurse handed my father the babies in the wrong order, so that his second-­born was indelicately plopped into his arms first, and I was christened Ava. I say “christened” purely as a casual description; my mother would have thoroughly lost her shit had any question of formal baptism been raised. My parents were good pagans, even if they weren’t much good at anything else.

Clearly delighted with this strange twist, my father insisted that we keep our misnomers; he said that the family Antipova would turn even the alphabet on its head. My mother, predictably, lay surly and despairing in her bed, counting down the seconds until her first gin and tonic in eight months. Even now, I can’t really blame her.

The seat-­belt light dings, and I unbuckle in order to root around in my bag for my iPad. I’ve read the email so many times I have it memorized, but I still feel a compulsion to stare at the words on the shimmering screen.



June 21, 2016 at 3:04 AM

Ava, honestly the whole point of you having a cellphone is so that I can call you in an emergency. Whicf this is. If you’d pick up your goddamn phone, I wouldnt have to tell you by EMAIL that your sister is dead. There was some type of fire following one your sisters drunken binges, and apparently, she didnt make it out. If you leave paris tomorrow, you might make it time for the service.

I can’t really tell whether the misspellings are because a) Mom is drunk, b) she never really learned to type (“I’m not a fucking secretary. I didn’t become a feminist so I could end up tapping out correspondence”), or c) the dementia is affecting her orthography. My money is on all three. I’ve never seen Nadine Antipova, née O’Connor, greet any kind of news, either good or bad, without a quart of gin in the wings. The death of a daughter, especially that of her preferred daughter, has probably rattled even her. My guess is that she was already three sheets to the wind when they told her, and she wasn’t able to get through to me on my cell because she either couldn’t remember the number or misdialed it. She would have had to toddle upstairs to the decrepit old MacBook gathering dust on what used to be my father’s desk. She would have lowered herself into the rickety office chair and squinted at the glare of the screen. After several frustrating minutes and false starts (and probably another slug of gin), she would have located Firefox and found her way to Gmail, if she didn’t try her old and defunct Hotmail account first. She probably would have sworn viciously at the screen when asked for her password. Nadine would consider the computer’s request for her to remember a specific detail as personally malicious, a couched taunt regarding her slipping faculties.

She would have tried to type something in, and the password would have been pre-­populated, because Zelda had, in her own inconsistent and careless way, tried to make our mother’s grim life a little easier. And then, drunk, aggravated, angry, and frightened, my mother wrote me a bitchy email to tell me that my twin sister had burned to death. And if that’s how she told me, I can only imagine how my father found out.

My first thought on reading the letter was that Zelda would have appreciated that death: This was exactly how she would have chosen it. It was a fitting end for someone named after Mrs. Fitzgerald, who died, raving, when a fire destroyed the sanatorium where she had been locked away for a good chunk of her life. How Bertha Rochester dies, in rather similar circumstances. As children, we played Joan of Arc, and Zelda built elaborate pyres for straw dolls decorated as the teenage martyr (Zelda was Joan; I was always cast as the nefarious English inquisitors). Death by fire was the right death for visionaries and madwomen, and Zelda was both. My dark double.

But then, because I know my sister, I read between the lines.

The whole thing was so very Zelda. Too Zelda. When I finally reached my mother on the phone, she slurrily told me that the barn had caught fire with Zelda trapped inside. The barn out back that Zelda had transformed into her escape hatch when she could no longer stomach being in the house with our ailing, flailing mother. I knew she liked to retreat to the apartment on the second floor, to stare out the window and chain-­smoke and drink and write me emails. The fire investigators seemed to believe that she passed out with a cigarette (Classic, Zelda!) and the wood of the barn and all the books she kept up there caught fire in the dry heat of the June day. Burned alive on the summer solstice. With the charred remnants in plain sight of half the windows in the house, where my mother can’t help being reminded of Zelda, even with her brain half rotted and her liver more than half pickled. My sister couldn’t have contrived a more appropriate death if she had planned it herself. Indeed.

The drinks trolley rolls by, blithely smashing into the knees of the long-­limbed. Compact and travel-­sized, I have plenty of space, even in the cramped and ever-­diminishing airline seats. I secure myself a bland Bloody Mary in a plastic cup, wondering for the dozenth time about the name of this precious, life-­giving elixir—­related to the gory bride we conjured in mirrors as girls?

I swirl the viscous tomato juice among too many ice cubes and not nearly enough vodka, sipping through the tiny red straw. I love these thin mixing straws. I love their parsimony. I’m trying very hard not to think about what I’m leaving and where I’m heading. Traveling this way across the Atlantic has always seemed cruel; you leave Europe at breakfast and arrive in the United States in time for brunch, exhausted and ready for happy hour and dinner. The sun moves backward in the sky. You face your bushy-­tailed friends and relatives having been awake for fifteen strenuous hours, having spent those hours exiled in the no-­place of airports and airplanes. Forever returning to Ithaca. Or Ithaka. I will be collected from the tiny airport and brought to my childhood home, fifty yards from where my twin sister is supposed to have crackled and sizzled just a few days earlier—­all before dinner. I wonder if the wreckage is still smoldering. Does wreckage ever do anything else? We have been twenty-­five for nearly one month.

I will walk into the house, instantly accosted by the smell, the smell of childhood, my home. I will walk upstairs, to my mother’s room. If it’s even one minute after five (and it likely will be, by the time I make it all the way upstate), she will be drunk or headed that way, and I will sit with her and pour each of us a hefty glass of wine. We will not discuss Zelda; we never do. Eventually (and this will not take as long as “eventually”) she will say something devastating, cruel, something I can’t really brush off, and I will leave her. If I’m feeling vindictive, I will take the wine with me, so that she will have to carefully make her way downstairs for another bottle, risking cracked hips and the possible humiliation of failure.

I’ll walk outside with that bottle of wine, and I will look at blackened timbers of that barn. I will scrutinize that dark heap of ashes. And then I will start trying to unravel my sister’s mystery, and I will find her, wherever she is hiding. Come out, come out, wherever you are. What game are you playing, Zelda? She has always been so bad with rules.



September 5, 2014 at 8:36 PM

Darling Sister, Monozygotic Co-­leaser of the Womb,

Well, is Paris all and everything? Does it glimmer the incandescent sparkle of mythology and overrepresentation? I’m betting yes to both, at least as far as you’re concerned. Let me guess what you’ve been up to: You landed, disposed of your baggage, and went immediately for a triumphant stroll along the Seine—­you know how you always must be near water in moments of jubilation, a genetic gift from our maternal forebears, beach striders all—­you strode, nay, frolicked along those hallowed banks until your blisters popped, and then, because you are our mother’s daughter, you promptly sought out some sort of cold alcoholic beverage. And, because it is very important to you to blend in with the locals but also to feel historically rooted in “authenticity,” I bet that drink was . . . Lillet! Or, very possibly, Champagne, but I would put money on the chance that both shame and frugality prevented you from slapping down sixty or seventy euros for an entire bottle of the bubbly. I’m betting you sipped your Lillet, tried out your perfectly acceptable French, basked in your escape, pretended you didn’t want anything else to drink, and bought that Champagne from some charming “authentic” wine store on your way home to the tiny shoe box you will be living in until you get this Francophilia out of your system (or until you squander Dad’s hush money and must retreat home). All the while resolutely not thinking of what happened before you left us. Why you left us. I’m right, Ava, n’est-­ce pas?

Well, I’m very happy that you’re fulfilling your dreams and whatnot, even if it did mean forsaking your beloved twin sister, whom you left languishing in the hammock with a touch of the vapors at the thought of bearing sole responsibility for our matriarch. I know you always say that she prefers me, but GOOD GOD, you should see how she’s moping around without you. I really think she thought that you were bluffing, that you weren’t serious about this whole graduate degree thing and were all along planning to settle in with her out at the homestead, to mop her brow and hold her hand as she trembles through the daily DTs, slowly losing all sense of self. Oh, but her bug-­eyes when your suitcase came down the stairs! She can’t remember much, but she remembers THAT betrayal. Jilted, she kept waiting for weeks in quivering, agonized suspense, disbelieving that she could be abandoned with such a flimsy explanation!

I’m not trying to guilt you (I would never! Not. Ever. Not after everything that happened . . . ) but am instead attempting to sketch a portrait of how life will proceed hereabouts in your absence. I’m going to stay in the trailer (I will! No one can force me out! Not even that damned bat) rather than move back to the house on the vineyard. Mom’s in iffy shape, true, but I’m planning to be there every day, as you know, and she’s still lucid enough to manage in the nights. I think. The Airstream is less than a mile away, in any case—­I should be able to see the plumes of smoke rising if she burns down the house, ha ha! I’ve considered hiring someone to stay with her a bit and take care of the more unsavory activities (diapers are just around the corner, really), but I’m reluctant to dip into the dwindling Antipova/O’Connor pot o’ gold. Barring some sort of harvest miracle with the grapevines, I think the years of a profit-­yielding Silenus Vineyard might be behind us, Ava. Seriously. But at least the failing entrepreneurial venture gives me the illusion of a profession, which is very useful at the few grown-­up cocktail parties I attend, and almost nowhere else. And it ostensibly gives me somewhere to be. And obviously keeps me in wine. No wonder the proto-­satyr Our Debauched Father was so enthused by the prospect of running a vineyard. He was not entirely foolish, that man.

Well, I’ve been rambling—­I’m sitting and typing on this antique laptop, here on Dad’s old desk. I’ve been trying to teach Mom, but she can barely remember to pull up her undies after she pisses (better than the other way round, I suppose!), so I imagine I’m mostly trying to entertain myself. When I finish, I will have to go collect Mother from her sun throne and tempt her with just enough booze to get her inside without a battle. Time to rip off the Band-­Aid. I’m sure you have some Brie and baguette to feast on—­but remember, not too much! Never! If she were (t)here, our mother would remind you that she recently noticed a slight wobble in your upper arm, and at your age, you can’t afford to overindulge. The irony.

In all seriousness, I miss you madly. Surely you WERE joking about this whole graduate degree thing?! And surely we can start talking again?

Eternal love from your adoring twin,

Z is for Zelda

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Dead Letters: A Novel 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Highly recommend
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Exciting and intriguing. The strange and insurmountable connection of twins
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Kept me guessing til the very end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
CarolineA More than 1 year ago
Caution: There may be mild spoilers, but I promise, NOTHING will ruin the ending. Literary fiction isn’t my GO TO genre. In fact, I tend to avoid it. For the most part I don’t like that style of writing. Going into Dead Letters I knew it was a more literary book than I gravitate toward and honestly, up until about 15-20% I seriously considered quitting. By the time I reached THE END (sobbing like a baby) I was so glad I didn’t quit this one. As the blurb indicates, Ava’s from a family of alcoholics. They’re all pretty terrible people, making all kinds of terrible life choices. It was hard to relate to them because I’m the opposite, I just don’t see the point in alcohol so I usually abstain. It actually bothered me a lot more up until the point when Ava says out loud that she knows she has a problem. Once the cards were on the table, I could respect her more. One of the problems I have with literary fiction is that they tend to linger on seemingly random tangents. That was very much the case with this book, as present day Ava reminisced about something that happened years ago, usually involving Zelda. And much of the time they seemed unimportant to the story, but off the top of my head, I can’t think of a flashback that didn’t pertain to the clues/ending. The clues laid out by Zelda were very clever. I found myself wondering how she was doing it. What was going on. Just when I thought I figured it out, I got a slap in the face. My theory was 100% incorrect, and though it would have been cool, this ending was so much butter. (If anyone wants to know my theory, feel free to private message me! I don’t want to spoil the journey for other readers by posting it here!) Seriously, I can’t express my feelings for this book without spoiling it! I’ll sum it up this way - for 95% of the book I could have cared less what happened, I just wanted to FINISH. Then the ending happened. And suddenly I was completely and totally invested in the story. Days later and I’m still thinking about it. The book shot from like, a 2.5-3 star book to a 3.75/4 star book. So should you read the book? If you’re into literary books - YES. If you’re not so much into literary but you like a book with a mind lowing ending that leaves you thinking - YES. I received an advanced release copy of this book from Goodreads First to Read and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Random House and the Author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
DaneWeimMama More than 1 year ago
Fascinating read!! I thought the author did a superb job of creating a mystery full of interesting twists & turns. Its a great read about sisters, families & dysfunction. I voluntarily reviewed an Advance Reader Copy of this book.
SmithFamilyInEngland More than 1 year ago
I was just a little disappointed in this book, even though the premise of it sounded really good. Ava's twin sister Zelda is believed to be dead in a barn fire. Through a series of emails Ava receives (from whom she assumes is her dead sister), she starts believing that Zelda may well be alive and playing a game with her, where she needs to follow the clues from A - Z in order to find her. This book is being categorised as a mystery thriller - which to be fair, there is an element of mystery to the story - but it certainly didn't fill the thriller category with the expected twists and turns - it's much more a family saga book. I totally disliked all of the characters (apart from maybe Wyatt who has a smaller role during the story) - not one of them I had any empathy for and considering they had just lost a daughter/twin sister quite tragically the lack of emotion was very strange. However, I still enjoyed the actual storyline, whether it was a thriller or not and I liked the use of the emails to convey Zelda's part in the plot. It's well written and very easy to follow. The only thing I found annoying was the constant reference to alcohol and the overuse of it by all the main characters. I wasn't bothered by the alcohol itself it was more the constant and I mean constant reference to it within the story. Overall, "Dead Letters" by Caine Dolan-Leach is worth a read but just don't expect it to be the mystery thriller you're led to believe it is. 3 stars
literarywindow More than 1 year ago
Dead Letters This book was one that I’ve had around for awhile...I had heard mixed reviews, so ultimately I pushed it back some on my to-read list. I totally understand why some readers were disappointed. Dead Letters was marketed as a mystery and thriller. It was definitely more mystery and minimal, if any, thriller. Now, I'll be the first to admit I love a great thriller, but I also love a book that can keep it simple and still hold your attention. This was for sure the latter. Ava Antipova had run away from her family, her life, and her relationship and moved to Paris. At the beginning of this book, she learned that her twin sister Zelda had died in a fire at their family vineyard. Burned in the barn next to the house they had grown up in. Immediately, Ava wondered what her sister Zelda was up to? She hadn’t sensed her death, it couldn’t be true. Ava headed back to her home to handle the situation. As soon as she returned, she started to receive messages from her supposedly dead sister, in a puzzle format. A to Z, each letter corresponded to a piece of the puzzle, the puzzle of where was Zelda now? Ava learned that a lot has transpired over the two years, while she was gone. As Ava sifted through the clues Zelda left, she had to live in the house she so desperately wanted to escape and she had to face the demons she had run from. In the end, Ava was what about Zelda? Dead Letters was for me one of those books that I spent time frustrated with most of the characters, most of the time. Growing up with plenty of alcohol in my household, I got the alcoholism references. Maybe a little too close to home. I know many people who elect to escape their lives via the alcohol bottle. Don't get me wrong, I love a good drink, but one or two is enough for me! I have been there and done that too many times to mention, in my younger years...I choose to do my life differently now. The characters - Ava was so self-absorbed and repressed! Zelda was so manipulative and strange! Their mother, holy moly, their poor mother - I guess she was clueless right? Marlon (aka Dad) what a joke, but maybe the life drove him away? At lastly, I didn't and couldn't forget Wyatt...yummy, but what a fool for these two! Poor guy, what's the rest of his life going to be like? Even though I couldn't really find a character to like, besides Wyatt, I still cared - I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to see how the story ended. I felt enough to stick with it, and I'm glad I did. Here’s the thought that keeps creeping into my mind a few days after finishing the book - what if the ending was a scam? What if Ava got another email shortly after the birth of her child? And it starts again...A to Z…Hmm...I would definitely be willing to go for another ride with these characters. It would also be interesting to see a Hollywood spin on this story. Just saying, it could happen! Thank you to NetGalley, Random House Publishing, and Caite Dolan-Leach for allowing me to experience this twisted world in exchange for my honest opinion.
sheLovesbooks89 More than 1 year ago
DEAD LETTERS NifahA (8) Edit I ALMOST CRIED I really liked this book. It was written very well although for about for 95% of the book I could have cared less what happened, I just wanted to FINISH. It was killing me to not know what the next clue was. Then the ending happened. And suddenly I was completely and totally invested in the story. I liked how it was almost impossible to predict the ending -or at least I couldn't. Every time I thought I knew what was about to happen I was completely wrong. I was very intrigued with the characters. I felt like this book had a beautiful message. Appreciate your family while there alive and don’t let small problems interfere with the relationship.
EmilyEleni More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written, heartbreaking, and compelling. Read with a glass of wine in hand.
Deb-Krenzer More than 1 year ago
Ava and Zelda are twins. Their parents thought it would be cool to name them using A and Z which would incorporate all the alphabet. Two years ago, Ava couldn't take living on their family's failing vineyard, their mother's ever slipping into dementia, a romantic betrayal and an absent family. She decides to leave and take up studies in Paris. Then she receives the news that her twin sister, Zelda, is dead and she must return to upstate New York. Her sister has burned to death in the family barn. Or did she. Ava starts getting e-mails from her sister which starts her on a scavenger hunt forcing her to relive their twisted history. She knows Zelda is just capable of doing this. This story of an alcoholic family and all their faults provides a great backdrop for the twistedness of these two sisters. It is impeccably written and one that I found I could not put down. It had me going back and forth. Was Zelda dead or wasn't she? The fact that the chains were locked on the door when the barn burned down were proof she was in there, or was it her? The e-mails and the letters left by her were proof she was alive. And, why was she doing this to her sister? Why did she go to Paris? There were so many questions going through my head while I was reading this. A wonderfully entertaining and enjoyable read. Thanks to Random House for approving my request and to Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Too bad she used the "f" word on almost every page. I will not recommend it to anyone I know, even though the descriptions and plot are clever.