Review – This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales

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Summary + Review

Happy New Year!  I think it’s pretty fitting that my review of This Song Will Save Your Life will be my first post of 2014. It was probably my favorite read of 2013. I know my review won’t do this amazing little book full justice.  But I’ll do my darnedest.

In a refreshingly funny but sad voice, Elise Dembowski describes her life as a high school student who just doesn’t fit in. Before her sophomore year, Elise decides to take on her own popularity as a sort of summer project and she sets off to become versed in mainstream pop culture. She studies ‘in’ celebrities, trendy clothes, and popular TV shows and movies; Elise, however, cannot bring herself to listen to pop music, and she clings fiercely, but secretly, to her Pixies and LCD Soundsystem.

On the first day of school, Elise feels like her plan has failed when things don’t quickly turn around, and…

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…she attempts suicide. Somehow, Sales has managed to make this section both achingly heartbreaking and… quirkily funny. Is it probably not appropriate to feel this way about a fictional character’s suicide contemplations, but with material like this I couldn’t help it: “I could overdose on pills, but I remembered, as I went through the bathroom cabinets, that my dad doesn’t keep many pills in the house. Dad is very into holistic remedies, and I don’t think you can overdose on echinacea and neti pots” (p. 23).  Of course, the funny is quickly overtaken by the desperation Elise feels.

spoilers over

When Elise returns to school, it is not with a renewed dedication to become popular or with complete misery; she has simply resigned herself to her situation, but at least she has pseudo-friends Sally and Chava! (More about those two later.) Another way Elise is coping is to go on late night walks. On one such walk, she finds an underground dance club where she feels almost welcome for the first time in her life. Before long, Thursday nights become all about getting to “the Start” to hang out with Vicky, Pippa, and the DJ, Char.  When a random situation gives Elise the chance to DJ at Start, she feels even more like she belongs: better still, she feels noticed and admired for her talent, for once, rather than ostracized.

Elise now has a renewed sense of purpose, and, with Char’s help, she sets out to learn how to DJ. Char even gives her an hour gig at his Thursday night spot.  But, like real life, all conflicts for the protagonist are not magically resolved.  The worst of the problems is that someone at school has created a really nasty, malicious website about Elise.

Quick personal rant here. Feel free to skip!

I feel compelled to add a personal note: I wish that at this point in the book, I could say that I stepped back and thought, Kids aren’t really that cruel in real life. Oh Ms. Sales, you’ve got it all wrong! But this cyberbullying thing is really ugly and really out of hand. I don’t agree with all the noisy, so-called pundits who say bullying amongst teens is occurring more frequently than ever before.  I think the difference now, compared to in the past, is the ‘cyber’ part. From personal experience, I can say that there is something about bullying via Internet that cuts deeper, is more humiliating and relentless, than other kinds of harassment.  Teachers, librarians, parents, and all the rest of ya who work with teens: get them to understand this. Teach the teens in your life responsible use of the Internet and, above all, teach them how to treat their fellow humans. Sorry – I feel like I’m having a “Can I get an Amen, sistah!” moment, but I just had to get that off my chest.

Okay, rant over. 🙂

So tension builds in the last half of This Song Will Save Your Life, and Sales keeps the humor up, but the website stuff and Elise’s outlook on her life become really difficult to read about. I’m going to skip over a bunch, here, but I don’t want to give too much away and this is turning into the world’s longest review.

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I thought the ending concluded just a little too neatly, but of course I wanted things to turn out wonderfully for Elise. I’m glad Sales didn’t carry out Elise’s relationship with Char, and I’m also glad that she avoided making this book a romance. I feel like it’s a rarity with YA right now to not have some perfect guy character swoop in and save the day. This was all about Elise and her navigation through her own problems. Bravo, Leila Sales! (Brava?)

spoilers over

So if you haven’t already: read this book. There is so much to like about it. Of course, I loved Elise’s sarcasm, naivete, and quirkiness that made her feel real. I loved Sally and Chava! Great secondary characters because they are so hilariously clueless!  Every moment featuring these two had me cracking up.  I also liked the occasional shift in focus to Elise’s family, who was believably and only slightly dysfunctional. That is another trend in YA that gets old sometimes: the hyper-dysfunctional family. These characters, like Sally and Chava, felt real and supported the main conflict without dominating it.

And, of course, I loved the message This Song Will Save Your Life conveys. It is a hopeful and important one.

Readability

 Sales’ writing is simple, accessible, and, I think, relatable for teens. I don’t have much to add here, because it’s an easy, quick read.

Appropriateness

There is some mild inappropriate language use, but nothing I would consider unrealistic to the characters being portrayed. The book also contains sexual references (blow job, characters being promiscuous, etc.), making out, and hooking up. Nothing is graphic, but these are the only elements that make me hesitate just a leeettle in whether I would offer it to middle schoolers.  I will, by the way. The content that serves as the focus of the book is just way too excellent to risk students missing out on just because of a little hanky-panky. 🙂

Ooh, almost forgot: there is one little part in which a character cuts himself/herself that may make some readers a bit squeamish. It is only described in a page or so, but it’s kind of necessary to the plot so be aware.

Instructional Uses

-Independent reading or student-choice book clubs

-Voice. Sometimes I have my students read to look at some element of the writing craft. Sales’ narration style and Elise’s personality are funny, sad, and realistic. Students could discuss how she accomplished this.

-Discussion. Weighty topics such as bullying, cyberbullying, cliques/social groups, and suicide are addressed in the book, and This Song Will Save Your Life could provide a ‘safe’ way to discuss them.

-This is not really a book to be analyzed or scrutinized. Read it, enjoy it, share it with your students and friends!

Book Talks/Promotion

Recommended passage(s) for book talks:

You think it’s so easy to change yourself.
You think it’s so easy, but it’s not.
What do you think it takes to reinvent yourself as an all-new person, a person who makes sense, who belongs? Do you change your clothes, your hair, your face? Go on, then. Do it. Pierce your ears, trim your bangs, buy a new purse. They will still see past that, see you, the girl who is still too scared, still too smart for her own good, still a beat behind, still, always, wrong. Change all you want; you can’t change that.
I know because I tried.
 
(Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers 2013 hardcover, page 3)
 
 Last summer, after freshman year, I decided I couldn’t go on like this anymore. I just could not. It’s not like I wanted to be Lizzie Reardon, captain of the soccer team; or Emily Wallace, part-time teen model; or Brooke Feldstein, who could (and did) hook up with every guy in school. I didn’t need to be the most exciting, beautiful, beloved girl in the school. I just needed not to be me anymore. 
You think it’s so easy to change yourself. It would be just like a movie makeover montage, pop music scoring the ugly girl’s transformation from bespectacled duckling to cheerleader swan. You think it’s so easy, but it was a whole summer’s worth of work. It was watching TV constantly, like I was doing homework, taking notes on who all these characters were, making charts of who came from which shows. It was reading gossip magazines and women’s magazines every week, testing myself when I was in the drugstore checkout line: “Who is that woman pictured on the cover of Marie Claire? Which reality TV show was she in?” It was hours of sunshine every day thrown away in favor of hunching over a computer, reading fashion blogs and celebrity blogs and perfume blogs. Did you even know that perfume Web sites exist? What is the point?
The one thing I couldn’t bring myself to do was listen to the music. I tried, for nearly an hour. Then I gave up. It was bad. Not even interesting-bad, like the movies I went to see alone, taking note of which lines in a romantic comedy made the audience laugh. The popular music wasn’t interesting-bad, it was bad-bad. Auto-Tuned vocalists who couldn’t really sing; offensively simplistic instrumentation; grating melodies. Like they thought we were stupid.
I would have given almost anything to change myself, but I wouldn’t give in to that. I hated that music more than I hated having to be myself every day. 
(pp. 5-6)

Book Trailer:

Web Resources:

Music is, of course, really important in this novel. Leila Sales created an accompanying playlist that she includes in the final pages. Macteenbooks.com has recreated *most* of that list here, which you can listen to on Spotify.

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Prescription

This Song Will Save Your Life is just the thing for teens and adults alike who are looking for inspiration in an authentic, funny, and sometimes heartbreaking package. Reading this may leave you teary and breathless, and it may result in unrealistic expectations for subsequent readings of YA contemporary realistic fiction.

Rating: 5/5

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