This Song Will Save Your Life

By Leila Sales
Published on September 17th 2013
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)

Source: ARC from publisher
Making friends has never been Elise Dembowski’s strong suit. All throughout her life, she’s been the butt of every joke and the outsider in every conversation. When a final attempt at popularity fails, Elise nearly gives up. Then she stumbles upon a warehouse party where she meets Vicky, a girl in a band who accepts her; Char, a cute, yet mysterious disc jockey; Pippa, a carefree spirit from England; and most importantly, a love for DJing.

Told in a refreshingly genuine and laugh-out-loud funny voice, THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE is an exuberant novel about identity, friendship, and the power of music to bring people together.
This is a book that I wanted to connect to more than I really did, but I think if I'd read this when I was 16 or so, I would have been the perfect audience.  The essence of Elise's life is something I feel like I would have connected with better then.  Elise is deeply unpopular for no real, apparent reason, other than the fact that she's smart and as she puts it, precocious, and pretty socially awkward in how she relates to her peers. It seems to her that the only people who actually care about her are related to her.

Unlike a lot of other female YA leads who embrace their outcast nature, or who at least easily settle into a group of other quirky outcasts, Elise is frustrated by her lack of friends and popularity.  She wants the shiny, golden life that she sees everyone else having and one summer vows to do everything she can to make herself popular.  She approaches it in the same clinical, obsessive manner that she approaches everything else she wants to learn, though, with pretty disastrous results.  Needless to say, she doesn't get the popularity and social life that she craves, and is just as invisible as ever.  It's not until she discovers an underground nightclub and a passion for DJing that she begins to really blossom and get the attention that she craves.

Leila Sales has a very beautiful, natural way of writing, and unlike a lot of other YA books, I felt like her characters all sounded and acted fairly age-appropriate.  Elise can be awkward in conversation sometimes but I chalk that up to the fact that for the first time in a very long time, she's got friends and people who are passionate about the same things that she are.  She doesn't get much peer interaction otherwise, so of course she doesn't always say the right thing, which doesn't help endear her to her classmates.

Elise's pain over not fitting in at school is so real that it's sometimes hard to read.  When she's at school, she's not always even outright bullied -- she's just ignored, which can in some ways be even worse.  You feel for her, because you can see that she's just as worthy of love and friendship as anyone else.  Elise developed a kind of snarky, bitter exterior as a defense mechanism, so sometimes she's a total jerk to people who maybe don't deserve it, and she's not really self aware enough to see that she's doing it.  At the same time, she gets in way over head with Char -- who, in Elise's defense, is someone who should have known better -- because she doesn't have the life experience or social skills to really know that it's not a great idea.  (Char is fascinating and enigmatic and, as is clear early on, kind of a big d-bag.)

Aside from the usual "not really the target age demographic" problems I have with a lot of YA, one of my problems with this book is the mixed messages it initially seems to send.  The whole issue of popularity, friendship, fitting in, etc., is complex, particularly when you're a precocious kid.  I was one of those kids, so I get it, I do.  For most of the book, Elise's drive is to become powerful and popular and to have people like her.  It's not really to better herself or become well rounded or anything like that.  As an adult, that frustrates me, but as a teen, I would have been like man right on, most likely.  Late in the book, Elise pretty much has a complete meltdown as she tries to teach someone else a lesson to basically not be special, to just be average and fly under the radar so that people will maybe like you and not tease you.  As someone who grew up in my school's gifted program and who struggled with making friends and still, to this day, struggles with the above-average child's mindset of "everything must be perfect and I must be perfect and anything less than perfection is failure", I totally get Elise there.  But I also want to say, no, no, please, be special, find that thing you're passionate about and go after it with all your heart, no matter what your school's Mean Girls say.  The messages get straightened out by the end -- be true to yourself, love what you love, you will find your niche -- but it takes a while to get there.  So I enjoyed the book but sometimes had a hard time with Elise because it seemed like it was taking a very long time to get the book's message to a satisfactory place, not one that made me twitchy.

I also thought the speed with which Elise became a master DJ was a little bit unrealistic and more wish fulfillment.  I don't think it would have bothered me if I weren't actually a very-part-time radio DJ in my real life.  Yes, radio is different from being a club DJ -- less "reading the room" and more "keeping track of time constantly" -- but many of the skills are the same.  I've been doing it for two years now and, boy do I still screw up my song transitions and have dead air and stuff.  Maybe if I had the time to obsessively practice at all hours of the night, I guess.  I don't know.  I don't know that that's an aspect that would bother many other people, but for me it just struck me as being too easy.  Elise decides she wants to be a DJ?  Great, cool, okay, but now she is magically The Best Most Awesomest DJ Ever, which took some suspension of disbelief for me.

This book's storylines include bullying, depression, suicidal thoughts, underage drinking, cursing, talking about sex, and heavy making out.  The serious subjects are handled sensitively and, since we're seeing them through Elise's eyes, are often handled fairly lightly. Not in a bad or offensive way, it's just that Elise has a pretty flippant way of looking at serious things sometimes.

Sound interesting?  Want to check it out?  If you've got an address in the US, then enter the below giveaway for an ARC of the book AND a special mix CD put together by the publisher with songs featured in the story.

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