Two words sum up my reaction to Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano: Potential Unfulfilled.
This was a novel described variously by bloggers as “powerful”; “unique” and “dazzling” when it was published in January 2020. It turned out to be less exciting and thought-provoking than indicated by those reactions.
Dear Edward is a tale born out of a tragedy. On a summer morning, the Adler family board a flight for Los Angeles. They are swapping their New York residence for a new home in California where their mother can advance her career as a scriptwriter.
The plane crashes in Colorado mid flight , causing the deaths of 191 passengers. Only one person survives – twelve-year-old Edward Adler.
This is a novel of two halves.
One half chronicles the effect of the crash upon the young boy, following him from hospital to his new home with his childless aunt and uncle. Physical therapists and a counsellor provide practical support but the biggest effect on his recovery is his friendship with Shay, the teenage girl who lives next door. With her support he begins to eat, get to school and, eventually to connect with the relatives of the passengers who died.
Coming of Age
This half of Dear Edward is essentially is a coming-of-age narrative in which Edward struggles with the loss of his family and his feeling that part of himself was also lost in the sky. It’s handled sensitively and with good insight into the psychological dimensions of grief and survivor guilt.
My problem with the book lay in its other half. In this Ann Napolitano winds back in time to the plane itself, recording the backstories of some of its passengers as it journeys to the moment of oblivion.
In the first class section there’s an irritable old business tycoon who is in the late stages of cancer. Across the aisle is a younger version of him, a Wall Street whizzkid with a drug abuse problem and Edward’s mother who is struggling to complete a script.
Back in the economy section are a soldier injured while on duty in Afghanistan, a larger-than-life woman who is running away from her controlling husband and a young woman flying to meet the man she hopes will be her partner in life.
Two Unequal Halves
My problem was that I didn’t feel these chapters really added much to the overall narrative. We already knew the plane crashed so all we were left with was the human interest angle. But I simply couldn’t connect with any of Ann Napolitano’s characters. They weren’t fleshed out enough to make me feel they were real and I never felt invested in their stories.
It might have made more sense if Dear Edward had just focused on the members of the Adler family. Or better still, just focused on Edward himself and how his survival impacts people who have never met him. These strangers feel a desperate need to reach out to him, sending him letters (hence the book’s title) asking him to fulfill the hopes and dreams of their loved ones who never made it.
How Edward responds to these expectations is one of the most interesting aspects of this book. The novel had so much potential to explore the consequences of a traumatic incident both on the immediate victims and the wider circle of friends and relatives.
I just wish Ann Napolitano had stuck to this main story rather than diluting the novel with, what to me, felt like a side story of the plane in motion.
Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano: End Notes
Ann Napolitano is the Associate Editor of One Story literary magazine. She received an MFA from New York University and has taught fiction writing in the USA. She currently lives in Brooklyn.
Dear Edward is her third novel, following on from A Good Hard Look and Within Arm’s Reach. It was published by Dial Press in the United States, and by Viking Penguin in the United Kingdom.
My thanks to Viking for a proof copy in return for an honest review.