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Book Review: THE LAST LETTER by Susan Pogorzelski

Fifteen-year-old Amelia (“Lia”) Lenelli writes letters that she keeps in a time capsule which resembles a My Little Pony lunchbox, buried two feet under the soil in her father’s flower garden, in a place marked by a turtle statue. The letters are addressed to “Whoever…” Whoever might one day read them. Some day far in the future, perhaps. Someone Lia will never know. So she pours out her heart, talking about the sessions with her doctor, trying to find out why she’s having trouble sleeping. Why she is suddenly doing badly in school. The fatigue, and other symptoms that seem to be robbing her of her life, her friends, and everything that she knew to be normal. They test for every kind of disease and disorder, but the results come back negative. Maybe she’s just making it up, trying to get out of school. But why would she want to feel this way? Perhaps if she can give it a name, she’ll have hope for a cure. Because right now, she’s just surviving. And as hope runs thin, even survival gets hard. If she can just write one last letter, one last way to make her life real, when it seems to be hanging by a thread…

Susan Pogorzelski’s first full-length novel is a semi-autobiographical account of her struggle with Lyme Disease, an affliction that is much more widespread that most people realize, and hard to diagnose since it often mimics the symptoms of other diseases. Part of Susan’s reason for writing is to raise awareness of Lyme Disease, but it’s also to help the rest of us understand what it’s like to live with it.

Amelia’s story unfolds in the form of the letters she writes to her unknown reader who, presumably, will one day unearth the time capsule. This letter format gives her the freedom to talk about her life, her hopes, her fears, and her feeling of helplessness as her world crumbles around her. Susan’s prose does an excellent job of conveying the emotional struggle of a high school girl who is forced to watch life from the sidelines, and whose closest relationships are shaken, all because of something outside her control, and seemingly beyond medical treatment.

I found it both sad and fascinating, as I was invited into this young girl’s life, to see through her eyes, and to experience something I hope I never have to go through. Perhaps the fact many of Lia’s experiences reflect Susan’s own is what gives her prose a resonance with reality. It’s hard to read and not feel at least sympathy, if not be affected by this girl’s struggle, and the bravery she shows battling though days when she hasn’t the energy to leave the couch, or when her friends turn their backs on her.

I don’t know how this is “officially” classified, but I would call it literary YA. The focus of the novel is not so much on a plot, but on a person, Lia, and her life over the six years covered by her letters. It’s particularly poignant that this time period covers the events of 9-11. Lia’s reflections on that tragic day, especially in light of her own personal sufferings, make for thoughtful reading as we’re challenged to consider bravery and survival in two very different contexts.

I’d say this book is for an older YA reader (and above, of course), given the emotional depth of the narrative. Susan’s novel is an excellent example of the power of fiction to draw the reader into a reality unlike their own. What she does in this book is more challenging and affecting than any medical description, or textbook definition. By reading Lia’s story, you get to live the disease with her. And it’s a credit to Susan’s skill as a writer that it works to that end. May it have a wide readership, and achieve the purpose for which it was written.