Learning not to judge in Brigid Kemmerer’s “Letters to the Lost”

Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer is a wonderful, thought-provoking and hopeful story. But it was also dark, philosophical and upsetting. It is nothing like what the blurb might initially lead you to believe — Juliet is writing letters to her dead mother, but the story isn’t about that. This is the story of how a young girl who is deeply affected by her mother’s tragic death, manages to find a way back by connecting with an anonymous writer who knows exactly what it is to feel loss.

Juliet Young has always written letters to her mother, a world-traveling photojournalist. Even after her mother’s death, she leaves letters at her grave. It’s the only way Juliet can cope. 

Declan Murphy isn’t the sort of guy you want to cross. In the midst of his court-ordered community service at the local cemetery, he’s trying to escape the demons of his past. 

When Declan reads a haunting letter left beside a grave, he can’t resist writing back. Soon, he’s opening up to a perfect stranger, and their connection is immediate. But neither of them knows that they’re not actually strangers. When real life at school interferes with their secret life of letters, Juliet and Declan discover truths that might tear them apart. This emotional, compulsively-readable romance will sweep everyone off their feet.

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Declan is the kind of boy you might misjudge. He’s the kind of boy Juliet does misjudge throughout the book without knowing he is the guy she pours her heart out to in her letters. because of this past, other kids at school label him as “that kid” to avoid. Even his step-father seems to find him a waste of space. He’s bad news. Except that’s not strictly true.

Which takes us to the important message of this book. If this novel does only one thing, it will teach you not to judge a person based on one snapshot, one moment in their life. I absolutely loved this message.

The most powerful thing about this book was that it elicited such strong emotions from me. This was largely because of the preconceived ideas other people had about Declan because of a single mistake he made.

His mother is completely oblivious to his struggles, his step-father is abrasive and pushes him out of their family unit so easily – and it’s all incredibly unfair because their mistakes were just as significant but appear to be entirely blameless. He is utterly alone, and yet has more support than he can see. His chapters, and letters, were so frustrating but also were some of my favourites because of it. You know you’re reading a good book when you are so attached to the story that you become emotional for the characters.

But we learn, as do the characters, that we cannot judge or be judged because of one day in our lives.

“One day isn’t your whole life, Murph.” He waits until I look at him. “A day is just a day.”
I scoff and slouch in the chair. “So what are you saying? That people shouldn’t judge me on one mistake? Tell that to Judge Ororos.”
He leans in against the table. “No, kid. I’m saying you shouldn’t judge yourself for it.”
— Brigid Kemmerer, Letters to the Lost

Letters to the Lost is also filled with incredibly clever ideas. Like the idea that a single day, the same day, can be so many different things to so many different people. Something so tragic to one person, can be an entirely different kind of tragedy for someone looking from a different angle.

It also makes us look at the bigger picture: we can’t decide to hate an entire part of loves because of one thing that happened in that time.

“You want to hate the whole year? Fine. But May twenty-fifth was one day. There are three hundred sixty-four other ones.”
— Brigid Kemmerer, Letters to the Lost

Kemmerer writes so beautifully. I found myself highlighting so many poignant, or pretty, statements in the book that really meant something to me; these kinds of books are the kind I want to read over and over again. Kemmerer seems to really capture what it is to feel the pain attributed to loss, despite it being so different for everyone, and this makes it such an emotional read for anyone who can relate, and probably those who are lucky enough to not be able to yet.

This book really made me think. It’s exactly what I enjoy in a book – I want to question what I know; I want the book to make me wonder about things I thought I understood. It is partly a romance, loosely, but it is so much more, asking questions about what it means to make a mistake, what it is to look from another position, and it excels at demonstrating how precious the time we have with those we love is. It will make you angry at the injustice of it all, but it is such a fantastic read because of it.

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