Today, I'm reviewing Katie Cotugno's How To Love. I thought the writing was beautiful, but didn't enjoy some of the characters.
YA Contemporary Thursday is where we review contemporary books that are about to be released, or have been released recently!
Hardcover, 389 pages
Expected publication: October 1st 2013 by Balzer + Bray
Format read: E-ARC via Edelweiss
The reading experience was an interesting one. I was strongly impressed by Katie Cotugno's writing and characterizations, but I also found it hard to jive with her character's life choices. I spent more far more time feeling disappointed and annoyed by their actions, than enjoying the journey that they were on.
While the book ultimately wasn't one I'd consider a personal favorite, I do hope that my review will help other readers decide whether or not they'd want to pick up this book.
In the Before, she details how Reena Montero and Sawyer LeGrande - two kids from very different worlds, with very different ideals - fall in love. However, after a relationship with a series of ups and downs, Sawyer abruptly leaves, leaving behind all of his obligations and a pregnant Reena.
In the After, three years have passed. Reena has regained a semblance of normalcy into her day-to-day life - she works, takes care of Hannah, and takes classes at the community college. It's not the Northwestern college plans that she once dreamed of, but it's what makes her happy.
However, in a twist of fate, Sawyer returns to town. Though Reena swears she doesn't want anything to do with him, the chemistry that they once had is undeniable. Will she let Sawyer back into her life?
Things that worked:
There's no doubt that Cotugno is a strong writer. Her descriptions are sharp, her word choices are apt, and the conversations that her characters have feel like things I'd hear my own friends say. In many ways, it feels like Cotugno has taken snapshots of her day-to-day life, and has captured them perfectly in her novel.
I was especially impressed with Cotugno's ability to jump back and forth throughout the book. She alternate from the Before and the After, and she does a spectacular job of:
1) Keeping the parallel story lines straight, until they eventually meet
2) Using different narration techniques to separate Reena's voices in both perspectives
3) Managing to still cohesively chart Reena's growth in both story lines. We can see how the Reena of the Before became the Reena of the After, but we can also see how After Reena is still influenced by the Before.
(If that doesn't make sense, don't worry - it makes perfect sense in the book.)
After reading How to Love, I'll definitely be interested in seeing what Cotugno writes in the future.
* The relationships
Outside of Reena and Sawyer's core relationship - more on this later - I loved all of the relationships depicted in the book.
Shelby and Reena's relationship was lovely, and is basically the type of relationship that any girl should hope for with her best friend. Shelby was there whenever Reena needed a hand, but also not afraid to tell Reena when she's wrong.
* Reena's family
Reena has a messy, angry, complicated with her father and stepmother, but I enjoyed every moment of their interactions. Even when Reena and her parents are angry at one another, I liked the idea that they were taking the time to be angry at each other. Parents are a rare commodity in YA/NA, so I enjoyed their presence.
I thought it was especially poignant when Reena was actually willing to stand up to them, and tell her how disappointed she was, that they hadn't been there for her as she adjusted to her new life. That took a lot of guts, and it was both to Reena and her father/stepmother's credit, that it seemed to filter through.
I didn't especially like Reena's life choices - e.g. getting involved with someone who clearly had a reputation for being a slacker - but I admired her ability to pick herself up and completely rebuild her life after it seemed like it had fallen apart.
Cotugno is absolutely fantastic at plotting. She deftly manages to drop a series of obstacles and revelations throughout the course of How to Love, engaging the reader and keeping them turning the pages.
Of course, the primary force behind the plotting would be the before/after narration. We're able to get a well-rounded view into the relationship, and see things from opposite ends of the spectrum.
However, Cotugno was also excellent with the smaller details. Her ability to make day-to-day events - e.g. Reena deciding whether or not she wanted to have dinner with Sawyer - seem like the biggest obstacle a person could face, and have the reader hanging on her choice - was a testament to her plotting and writing abilities.
Things that didn't work:
Let me preface this by saying: I think it's a testament to Cotugno's writing that I had such a strong, visceral reaction to a character. It takes a certain amount of skill for anywriter to write a character that a reader will actually take the time to dissect, even if they don't like said character.
So with that being said, I have to confess: I couldn't stand Sawyer.
I know we're supposed to root for him in spite of all of his flaws, but I felt like we weren't given enough incentive to look beyond all of his glaring flaws - e.g. his drug use; inability to get to work on time, etc. Cotugno never fully explains just why Sawyer is so compelling, both Reena and the reader are expected to excuse and forgive behavior that normal people wouldn't accept from anyone else.
Even in the end, I feel like Reena's largely willing to forgive Sawyer more because of her lust for that perfect relationship, more than anything else.
On that note...
* The ending
I thought that Reena and Sawyer were so toxic together, I was kind of horrified that they were obviously looking at a reconciliation in the end. Come on, Reena. Have more sense than that, please?
I strongly recommend this book for YA readers who may be looking for something more NA-inclined.
Disclaimer: I received an e-arc of How to Love from HarperCollins via Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!
About the author:
Katie is a Pushcart Prize nominee whose work has appeared in The Broadkill Review, The Apalachee Review, and Argestes, as well as on Nerve.com. Her first novel, HOW TO LOVE, is due out from Balzer + Bray on October 1st, 2013.
The great loves of Katie's life include child's pose, her little sister, and mozzarella and honey sandwiches. She lives in Boston (and in sin) with her boyfriend, Tom.