Genre: YA, Contemporary
Publisher: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux on September 17th, 2013
Making friends has never been Elise Dembowski’s strong suit. View Spoiler »
Despite having read – and really enjoyed – Leila Sales previous works, her latest novel This Song Will Save Your Life is by far her best effort yet. Fans of her other novels may be startled by Sales’ shift in tone; This Song Will Save Your Life is considerably more serious, although it still has the off-beat humor that made Sales’ other works so popular.
When 16 year old Elise Dembowski attempts suicide, she is confronted with a stunning realization: she doesn’t actually want to die. Fast forward seven months later, and Elise is still dealing with the bullying and self-loathing that drove her to the edge. When Elise sneaks out at night to escape her hovering parents, she happens across Start, an underground dance club where the music is indie and the partiers are wild. And thus her love of DJ-ing is born.
Side note about Elise’s musical interests: is it just me, or do all YA novels that discuss music mention The Smiths at least once? I’m thinking about The Vinyl Princess, Harmonic Feedback, and most recently, Eleanor & Park. Don’t get me wrong, I actually like The Smiths, but I think YA authors need to pick a new favourite indie band. But I digress.
Through her DJ gig at Start Elise meets Vicky, an event that changes how others perceive her; while hanging out with Vicky gives Elise cred, it more importantly changes how she sees herself. Elise also befriends Mel, the bouncer at Start who becomes a surrogate father figure for her. For the first time, Elise is surrounded by people who see beyond her precociousness and actually get to know her.
Despite their 3-year age difference, Vicky and Elise become fast friends, bonding over their love of music. This friendship deepens when Elise learns that Vicky has also struggled with self-harm and her desire for acceptance. These two characters were so well-drawn, I felt like they were real people – girls I could have sat beside in a class, or on the bus. Vicky is sassy and confident, and to Elise, she represents the freedom, originality, and charisma that she strives to emulate. But Vicky isn’t some infallible magical unicorn creature without flaws; she’s a young woman who struggles with insecurity and body image. To paraphrase the lovable father figure Mel, Vicky and Elise have both talent and issues. This novel is really about being able to overcome the latter so that the former can shine through.
This is perfectly illustrated when Elise repeated Vicky’s mantra back to her:
“Repeat after me. I deserve to be here.”
“I deserve to be here,” Vicky said, looking into my eyes.
“I don’t care if anyone thinks I look stupid.”
“I don’t care if anyone thinks I look stupid,” Vicky echoed quietly.
Vicky and Elise are able to help one another move beyond those issues so that they can share their considerable talents with other Start-goers. Elise’s struggle against bullying and her own self-loathing was emotional and inspiring; This Song Will Save Your Life has been my favourite contemporary YA novel of 2013 so far.