By Kelly Braffet
Published on August 6th 2013
Published by Crown
Source: Netgalley/blog tour
Published by Crown
Source: Netgalley/blog tour
This is a tough book to review, because I thought it was incredibly good, but so many of the characters are frustrating or downright reprehensible. It's not a feel-good sort of book and there are lots of plot points that are honestly really uncomfortable to read about. But it is a book that just sucks you in and gets you hooked while you wait for the full train wreck to unfold.Patrick Cusimano is in a bad way. His father is in jail, he works the midnight shift at a grubby convenience store, and his brother's girlfriend, Caro, has taken their friendship to an uncomfortable new level. On top of all that, he can't quite shake the attentions of Layla Elshere, a goth teenager who befriends Patrick for reasons he doesn't understand and doesn't fully trust. The temptations these two women offer are pushing him to his breaking point.
Meanwhile, Layla's little sister, Verna, is suffering through her first year of high school. She's become a prime target for her cruel classmates, not just because of her strange name and her fundamentalist parents: Layla's bad-girl rep proves to be too huge a shadow for Verna, so she falls in with her sister's circle of outcasts and misfits whose world is far darker than she ever imagined.
Save Yourself takes place in a fictional western Pennsylvania town, probably not too different from the area where I grew up. I don't know if the author has ever spent any time out there, but she definitely captured the spirit and feel of a run-down working class town. Everything in the story felt very familiar to me in a personal way. The house you spend your whole life in. The dingy bars and convenience stores where everyone gathers. The small-town mentality, the cliques, the aimlessness. How hard it can be to escape. I knew people like Layla, who acted out in the worst ways, who were raised by parents who thought they were doing the right thing but who were really, profoundly screwing up their kids. The whole time I was reading, I felt like if my life were only a little different, if I were only a little less fortunate or privileged or blessed, however you want to see it, that I could have easily been Layla or Verna or Patrick.
These are all horrifically damaged people. In a way, it's partially a book showing the aftermath of parenting gone bad. Patrick and his brother Mike are essentially adult orphans, with their mother dead and their father in jail. Patrick and his brother Mike didn't have great lives to begin with, but now they're vilified by the town by association. Mike ignores it and slowly begins to spiral down to follow the same path their father did, while Patrick lets it consume him. Caro, Mike's girlfriend, has spent her whole life running from her past, trying to outrun what she thinks is an inevitable future of mental illness, care of her mother and genetics, by bouncing from one bad-news guy to the next. Layla and Verna are raised in a conservative, fundamentalist home and are trapped in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" nightmare. Layla rebels and puts on a tough, goth-y exterior to hide how hurt and confused and in need of love/approval she is. Verna experiences horrific bullying at school and suffers in silence, turning to Layla and her friends to try to find a place to fit in, with disastrous results.
At one point, I think Caro makes the observation that she often wants to shake people, tell them to wake up and see what's going on around them, and that's really how I felt about every last person in this story. Caro tries to do this for Patrick and Mike but it never quite gets through to them. I wanted to take Verna away, protect her from the terrible bullying she endures. I wanted to tell Layla that she doesn't need to do what she does to get people to love her, that she is beautiful and has worth and is being so, so used. Bad decisions just snowball into one another, taking you along for a very tense ride until the very end. This isn't an uplifting story by any means, but a harsh look at what people can do when pushed against each other, when they're set up to fail, when they feel desperate and guilty and unloved. The author makes all of the characters seem very realistic, even when realistic means dirty and miserable and unhinged.
Themes include school bullying, mental illness, physical and emotional abuse, underage sex, coercion/manipulation, alcoholism, drunk driving, and cutting/self harm, so the book is recommended for more mature readers. Despite the dark, heavy material, I would definitely recommend this book! It kept me engaged from start to finish, wanting to know what happens next.
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