5 stars out of 5
Oh my, my. What a wild ride - all the way from Astounding to Zero cool!
My choice of descriptor words is on purpose - a nod to the main characters in this book, twins Ava and Zelda, so named by their father for the order of their entrance in the world at birth (never mind that he got it wrong). It's also a nod to the plot itself, as a grown-up and gone-missing Zelda leaves a trail of alphabetical clues for sister Ava to follow in a quirky and potentially deadly "game."
Two years ago, Ava left the Antipova family vineyard, which isn't doing well, mostly because of a betrayal involving her twin; they haven't spoken since. She also was eager to get away from their mother, who's not so gradually being overtaken by dementia and alcoholism. The twins' father barreled out years ago and has remarried, an act not since forgiven by either girl.
So Ava heads to Paris, where she finds a new life, a new French boyfriend and happiness at the tender age of 25. But then, her world comes to a crashing halt: She learns that Zelda has died - apparently the victim of a fire that destroyed the barn on the family's property in New York's Finger Lakes region (more on that later).
Not long after Ava returns home, though, she begins to suspect that Zelda isn't dead after all. Soon, she begins to get text messages from her sister, which appear to be clues related to her disappearance - beginning with the first letter of the alphabet. Aha, Ava concludes - Zelda's up to her old devious tricks. As she tries to deal with her totally dysfunctional family (her father returned on a temporary basis when he learned that Zelda had died) that includes her father's obsessive mother and Wyatt, the boyfriend she left behind.
It takes a while, but forensic evidence determines that the human remains inside the burned-out barn are, in fact, Zelda's. The situation is intensified when local police conclude that Zelda's death wasn't an accident - the barn doors were locked from the outside - and a prime suspect is identified. But the messages Ava is getting from Zelda suggest something else is afoot; should she let the police in on her secret or follow her twin to the ends of the alphabet in the hopes of getting to the truth?
Once that decision is made, the book revvs up into high gear - capturing and holding my attention for the rest of the drive even during crucial college football playoff games (although dividing my time between the book and TV did get a little easier, I'm sorry to say, once "my" Ohio State University Buckeyes got thoroughly trounced by Clemson in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl).
Now that I've finished the book (most of the time keeping half an eye on the Rose Bowl), I see the whole picture. Truthfully, I had a bit of trouble believing the whole thing could have been accomplished as efficiently (for want of a better word) as it was, but in the end it really doesn't matter. The whole thing is far more a study in character development and interaction than murder mystery - and what intriguing characters they all are.
My enjoyment of the book was enhanced, I admit, by the setting. One of my favorite places to visit is Seneca Lake; my husband and I have spent many wonderful days relaxing and doing our photography thing at Seneca Harbor Station, hiking the awesome Gorge Trail in Watkins Glen State Park, "touring" the NASCAR track (in between races, visitors are allowed inside) and, not insignificantly, sampling as many wines as we can from the dozens of vineyards in and around Seneca, Cayuga and Keuka lakes. When I head out for morning walks here in my northeast Ohio neighborhood, I often wear the T-shirt I bought at Keuka College mostly because I figured it would be a conversation starter (I was right).
But I digress. In summary, this is a great debut novel - one I hope (and expect) will do very well. Many thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.
Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach (Random House, February 2017); 352 pp.