By Ann Napolitano
One summer morning, a flight takes off from New York to Los Angeles. There are 192 passengers aboard: among them a young woman taking a pregnancy test in the airplane toilet; a Wall Street millionaire flirting with the air hostess; an injured soldier returning from Afghanistan; and two beleaguered parents moving across the country with their adolescent sons, bickering over who gets the window seat. When the plane suddenly crashes in a field in Colorado, the younger of these boys, 12-year-old Edward Adler, is the sole survivor.
Dear Edward depicts Edward’s life in the crash’s aftermath as he struggles to make sense of the meaning of his survival, the strangeness of his sudden fame, and find his place in the world without his family. In his new home with his aunt and uncle, the only solace comes from his friendship with the girl next door, Shay. Together Edward and Shay make a startling discovery: hidden in his uncle’s garage are sacks of letters from the relatives of the other passengers, addressed to Edward.
As Edward comes of age against the backdrop of sudden tragedy, he must confront some of life’s most profound questions: how do we make the most of the time we are given? And what does it mean not just to survive, but to truly live?
If you had tracked my heartbeat while I was reading Dear Edward, you might have thought I was running a marathon. Ann Napolitano is a master at building suspense and pace – in a very subtle way. Whether it’s character or plot, Napolitano builds up a scene, and almost instantly lets you fall away from it. This, combined with her quirky yet descriptive language and apt storytelling, meant I couldn’t put this book down from start to finish.
You’ll laugh, cry and learn while reading Dear Edward. Napolitano is a witty writer and makes keen observations on how people act alone and how they interact with others. This perceptive narration reminds me of authors like Fredrik Backman. Like him, she uses fresh metaphors and similes, and writes in a neat, concise way.
“This was not a tragedy. Dying on your couch watching TV by yourself is a tragedy. Dying while doing something you love with every part of your body, is magic. I wish you magic, Edward.”
The book is always going to be sad: how can a tale about a plane crash survivor be anything but? However, I totally underestimated how deep the sadness goes, and found myself having a quiet cry at certain parts. When you finally reach the scene of the crash (not a spoiler – I think this eventuality is pretty obvious from the start), Napolitano writes in such a gripping, raw way that you have to wonder whether she herself has been on a crashing plane before.
“The most common qualification is the fact that it is statistically more dangerous to travel in a car than in an airplane. In absolute numbers, there are more than five million car accidents compared to twenty aeronautical accidents per year, so in fact, flying is safer. People are also helped by etiquette; because commercial air travel is public, a kind of group confidence comes into play. People take comfort in each other’s presence. Sitting side by side, shoulder to shoulder, they believe that it is impossible for this many people to have taken a foolish risk at the same time.”
While Dear Edward is a book about a plane crash, the plot and action take a backseat to the characters. It’s a mainly character-driven story, and is much better off for it. Edward isn’t the only three-dimensional character either. Napolitano gives every character a backstory, a drive and a challenge. Whether it’s Lacey and John, battling with a struggling marriage, Benjamin fighting with his new life, or the wonderful Shay and her desire to rebel. Some of the most powerful stories belong to the other passengers. Each defies stereotyping and subverts what you might have initially guessed about them. The result? Realistic characters that you come to love and mourn for.
The narrative in Dear Edward is both exasperating and exhilarating. It’s told in sections: before the plane journey, during the journey, and after. But Napolitano jumps around between the three, snatching a scene away from you just as it’s about to climax. You get the skeleton of the story, much like a paint-by-numbers template, yet it takes the entire book before you can add in the colour.
Watching Edward transform from a young 12-year-old boy who idolises his older brother, to a voiceless, silent orphan, to a young man finding peace with the world, is incredibly cathartic. I couldn’t stop thinking of my younger brother and how he would cope if he was in Edward’s situation. This book is set around such a relatable situation, which makes the pain of the book so visceral and so real: it feels like a knot stuck in your stomach.
I can’t be the only one who thinks about planes crashing when I fly somewhere. So seeing this scenario played out should be the worst thing for a bad flyer like myself. But for some reason, it’s not. And Napolitano is clever in how she makes the crash happen. In every sentence of despair, there’s a glimmer of hope. She shows that even in the depths of depression, there are people trying to help you in every way possible – whether it’s looking for your magical superpowers, making you learn to lift weights, watching crappy soap operas, or caring for delicate plants.
I was totally blown away by how much I loved and enjoyed Dear Edward. To quote Dr Ian Malcolm (aka Jeff Goldblum aka my future husband) from my favourite film (aka Jurassic Park): “Life finds a way.” And in this book, it sprouts from a long-buried seed, struggling through darkness, until it finally reaches the light.
Thank you to Net Galley and Penguin Books for providing an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. And thanks to Ann Napolitano for writing such a magical book.