Dirty Letters works as a good romance and a good character study, but had some annoying flaws that kept it far away from the higher grades. Which is too bad, because I definitely think parts of it are worth a read, and the style of writing is excellent.
With the encouragement of her psychiatrist, Luca Vinetti has travelled to Manhattan in order to clean out her father’s apartment after avoiding doing so for a full year. Luca, stricken with panic disorder, needs all the help and support Doctor Maxwell can afford to keep her spiraling thoughts from escalating.
At her father’s apartment – among the various artifacts of his life – she finds a brand-new letter addressed to Luca Ryan. Ryan isn’t her real last name – it was the one assigned to her by second grade teacher so her students could participate in a penpal program with a group of kids in a small town in England. It’s been year since Luca had thought of Griffin Quinn, but here he is, back in her mailbox.
She and Griffin had continued on their writing relationship far beyond the second grade, but stopped writing one another eight years before, when they were both seventeen. What could he want with her now?
Well, he’s written her to ask her about her hard liquor preferences – and to tell her she sucks for dropping their connection. This understandably rattles the sensitive Luca, who gets advice from Doctor Maxwell to write Griffin back.
But Luca’s got reason for her panic disorder and for abandoning her penpal relationship with Griffin. Eight years earlier, her life was forever changed when she was caught in a concert fire that resulted in the death of her best friend. The survivor’s guilt sparked the anxiety that haunts her to this day, leaving her with a miles-long list of phobias – including agoraphobia – which she nurses while balancing a career as a New York Times bestselling mystery author.
Griffin, meanwhile, was struggling with his own problems – a cheating father, his mother dying of ovarian cancer – with no one for him to lean on. Now he’s in America, still single and alone, conducting a friends-with-benefits relationship with a band member, a famous musician who has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars thanks to his best friend’s addicted embezzling.
Luca writes Griffin and Griffin writes back. A relationship begins to form, aided and abetted by Doctor Maxwell. Choosing to lie to Luca about his level of fame (he conveniently conducts his career under an assumed name – Cole Archer), Griffin’s secret festers as their attraction grows and they go from discussing their emotional scars to exploring their masturbation habits. But when Luca drives up to meet Griffin, she begins complicating things with lies of her own. With the paparazzi on their heels, will they ever manage to make it as a couple?
Dirty Letters spawned some complicated feelings in me. I really liked the storytelling, the romance, even Luca herself. The writing quality here is extremely high, and parts of the relationship work. Kind of.
Luca is enjoyable, and her panic disorder is portrayed with sensitivity and realism, as is Griffin’s attempt at learning how to cope with it. Speaking as someone who has a condition much like hers, both authors have perfectly captured what it feels like and what the symptoms register as. Luca herself is amusing. She says things like she has “so many feels” in a serious manner. I liked her emotional support pig.
But the hero is the book’s biggest problem. Griffin made an immediately negative impression on me with his weird obsessive negging, which quickly plunged the book’s grade and, as it went on, made me loathe him. She stopped writing to you eight years ago, dude, no matter how close you were, just chalk it up to her outgrowing the relationship and get over it. While he cares about Luca passionately and wants the best for her, he’s also pushy as hell. The first question he sends her is a demand for her story about the first time she had sex (if underage masturbation explicitly described makes you uncomfortable, then avoid this book – sidenote, also don’t masturbate with vibrating Furby Happy Meal toys, you’ll either get battery burns or artificial fiber where there ought not be fiber!) Listening to Griffin whine about how hard it is to be rich and famous just made me want to strangle him, and watching him pull that bullshit let-me-teach-you-about-sex-my-virginal-shut-in-friend move is gross as hell. Griffin is one of those romance heroes, the ones with control issues. He makes you want to punch him.
Much of their relationship revolves around Griffin alternating between sarcastically poking Luca, being self-centeredly bombastic, and making grand statements about how much she deserves and how wonderful she is. He pokes fun at her conditions and Luca likes him for this (?! I guess?!?). But there are wonderful moments – like pineapple pizza eaten by a fire and long discussions about faith and the nature of the future, as well as ABBA.
My favorite character was actually Luca’s psychiatrist – at least until he says that letting Griffin into her life because of the possibility of “coitus” (which she needs because she hasn’t been with a man for years) – at which point I wondered who the hell issued him his license – and then shows up in a suit to drive Luca to a sex assignation with Griffin. Did he start out as a grandfather figure and end up turned into a psychotherapist? Does this not violate several HIPPA laws? His advice that Luca get into a relationship with Griffin because it will help her panic disorder – well, let’s just say that doesn’t work in the narrative (thankfully) and doesn’t work in real life.
The plot begs the reader to make such logic leaps. That Luca would never write Griffin about her close friend or the concert before the fire happened. That a mass-casualty fire wouldn’t be reported internationally and Griffin wouldn’t recognize either the name of Luca’s hometown or her friend on the casualty rolls. That Luca would be a New York Times bestselling author writing as Ryan Griffin and Griffin would never put two and two together. That Griffin’s stellar music career wouldn’t cause Luca to put two and two together, even when the evidence tries to bash her over the head. Even though they haven’t swapped pics and don’t know each other’s last names, they have their home addresses and know general things about each other, to the point where they were incredibly close. That Griffin could have a songwriting career with sub-Justin-Bieber-level lyrical ability. That a big dramatic moment is actually wrenched from Luca locking herself in the bathroom (I know, confined spaces, but she couldn’t break a window?)
A much better moment combines a fire at the AirBNB they’re renting, which combines the horrifying power of Griffin’s star power with the nightmare of a fire evacuation. Scenes like this are why I couldn’t quite bear to give the book a D.
Dirty Letters is compelling in a strange way, and incredibly well written. For all of its vibrating Furbys and quirky bird-loving, over-involved psychiatrists, that one fact is hard to deny.
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