Source: Review copy
Publication: 20th February 2020 from Viking
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?
Dear Edward is the story of a 12 year old boy who is the sole survivor of a terrible plane crash. Anne Napolitano’s novel deals with how he processes existence; what happens when everyone you love has been taken away from you and how it feels to be the one left behind.
Dear Edward works because it is beautifully written, treading just on the right side of the potential mawkishness of this situation. Napolitano intersperses telling the story of Eddie’s life after the crash with scenes from the plane before it gets into difficulty.
Thus we get to meet some of the passengers; to know a bit about who they are and why they are flying; to understand a little of their hopes, fears and dreams.
Eddie’s family were flying from Newark to L.A. because Eddie’s mum, Jane, is a screenwriter. Right now she’s working on stuff that makes her money, but her dream is to write the script she’s been thinking about for years. Eddie’s dad, Bruce home-schools Eddie and his elder brother, Jordan because he doesn’t think schools teach kids to be sufficiently independently minded or to ask searching and difficult questions.
Eddie is 12; Jordan 15. Jordan is everything to Eddie and it is Jordan that creates the biggest hole in Eddie’s heart, because they were the closest they could be.
After the crash, Eddie goes to live with Jane’s sister, Lacey and her husband, John. Of course they take Eddie in, though now he has left Eddie behind; that was for pre-crash, now he is Edward. Lacey and John are nursing their own heartache and Eddie can feel that as soon as he walks into the house. It’s a crushing burden for a 12 year old boy who has lived through what Edward has experienced.
So as we get to know more about Edward, we are also up close and personal with the passengers – an eclectic range of people squeezed into a metal tube thousands of feet up in the air. The ailing old man, the gay veteran, the air stewardess and the jangling re-incarnation lady and most poignant of all, the woman who has just discovered she is pregnant. Each individual life matters to someone, even if just to themselves.
In an age where everything is public and Twitter and Instagram make people feel they have a right to access everyone’s lives, John and Lacey understand that Edward just isn’t going to be able to cope with the attention he is going to get and set out to shelter him as much as they can.
Edward has to get on with life; to learn how to put one foot in front of the other, but for him it is all by rote. He can’t sleep, he doesn’t feel anything and he has neither appetite nor any interest in anything. His life has to be lived, that much he knows, but he lacks interest in knowing how to do that. So it becomes about getting through each day; about not upsetting John and Lacey and about recognising that his status allows him latitude no other 12 year old boy would get.
It is his next door neighbour’s daughter, Shay, who helps him through. She finds a way to make him consider his situation and to give expression to at least some of what he is feeling, in a way that his psychiatrist has never achieved. She’s a straight talker and Edward finds he appreciates that, especially since she’s not going to let him mess her around – and Edward’s life is full of people who don’t know how to say ‘no’ to him.
As Edward recovers from his physical injuries and goes to school, Shay is by his side every step of the way. But Edward is not really living his life; he’s just going through the motions and that much is made clear by the juxtaposition with the scenes from the plane where we are let in to the intimate secrets of the passengers and understand what each has lost when the plane goes down.
Dear Edward is about how Edward learns to live with almost unbearable grief to make a start towards recovery. Part of that is finding a sense of purpose and learning all over again how to connect with people and how to let emotion back into his life. A sprinkling of dry humour keeps the overly sentimental at bay.
Verdict: Beautifully written, poignant and utterly compelling, Dear Edward is a sometimes heart-wrenching and powerful exploration of what it means to lose everyone and how the human spirit can re-connect and find a way to heal. Ultimately uplifting, it has the benefit of prompting this reader to ask ‘what is my purpose in this world?’ which can’t be a bad thing. Highly recommended.
Ann Napolitano is the author of the novels A Good Hard Look and Within Arm’s Reach. She is also the Associate Editor of One Story literary magazine. She received an MFA from New York University; she has taught fiction writing for Brooklyn College’s MFA program, New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and for Gotham Writers’ Workshop. Dear Edward currently has fifteen international publishers.