Friday, October 25, 2013

Review: How to Love by Katie Cotugno


Title: How to Love

Author: Katie Cotugno

Rating: 3 Stars

It's no secret that I struggle with romance. I'm just as prone to swooning as any other girl, but perhaps I'm just more picky about who I swoon over. Or maybe it just takes more for a romance to really click for me. Whatever it is, How to Love, failed to impress me. Not only did its love story fall flat, but its tale of redemption didn't tug at any heartstrings whatsoever. Although I believe that Cotugno's debut novel manages to cover a plethora of topics with poise, its prose lilting and impossible to tear away from, my overall feelings towards this novel remain ambiguous. In fact, I sincerely hope to forget all about it...soon.

How to Love is told in alternating timelines, switching from "Before" to "After" every other chapter. It chronicles the tale of Sawyer and Reena's young, teenage romance in a small Florida town "before" Reena became pregnant and then, two years "after" when Sawyer finally returns, turning Reena's life upside down once again. It's a fairly typical story line, no denying, but Cotugno's writing is beautiful, flowing from past to present and aligning these dual tales perfectly. I particularly love the manner in which the details of this couple are slowly revealed, layer by layer. Moreover, it is especially effective in witnessing both the similarities and the differences between teenage Reena and grown-up Reena; teenage Sawyer and grown-up Sawyer. I've found that most novels that tackle this idea tend to either begin in the past before shifting to the present or are merely dispersed with numerous flashbacks. In contrast, Cotugno's style works best.

Where Cotugno truly shines, however, is in her honest portrayal of Reena. As far as protagonists go, Reena is an easy one to root for. Not only is she under the drinking age and straddled with a two-year-old daughter, but her dreams of attending a nonfiction writing program at Northwestern and traveling the world have all been dashed by her careless teenage mistake. Yet, I appreciate that she took responsibility for her actions and her strength is one to be admired. Moreover, despite the stigma and allegations of her conservative parents and town, Reena manages to work, take care of her daughter, and attend classes at the local community college. When it comes to teenage pregnancy, Cotugno really hit the nail on the head. Although I am quick to judge on this subject, numerous novels over the past year - Beth Kephart's Small Damages most notably - have allowed me to view this subject in a much more different light. Cotugno is no exception and excels, not only in capturing Reena's tumultuous mindset, but also in highlighting the tense relationships she holds with her parents and friends.

Nevertheless, where this novel fell apart for me was in its love interest, Sawyer. As a teenager, Sawyer is a mess: drugs, alcohol, and a total Casanova to boot. Unfortunately, I never really came to understand why Sawyer was forced to resort to such extremes to cope with his life, which only twisted my view of him. Furthermore, though, I simply could not see his charm. Sawyer is the godson of Reena's father and, as such, she has grown up seeing him all her life. And, all her life, she's been head-over-heels crazy for him. Why? I have no idea. Granted, Sawyer is handsome and polite, but once his relationship with Reena truly took off, I could only think of one word to describe it: unhealthy. Sawyer convinces Reena to skip classes, blow off her responsibilities, and subtly peer pressures her to mingle with his crowd. On more than once occasion, Reena is upset after spending time with Sawyer and often uncomfortable at the scenes he takes her too. Still, no matter how discomfiting it was to read about their destructive relationship, it ultimately stands as a realistic portrayal of many teenage relationships.

Where How to Love completely lost me, though, was in the "after" relationship between Reena and Sawyer. Although Sawyer takes off for two years to attend rehab and get his act together, I was unable to fall for the man he had become. It should be made clear that Sawyer was completely unaware of the fact he even had a daughter until he returned home to Florida. When he did learn the truth - that Reena didn't, in fact, go to Northwestern - he immediately steps up and makes an effort to become Hannah's father. I appreciated this and even understood the persistent sparks between himself and Reena, but the relationship between Reena and Sawyer also persists in its unhealthy aspects. I found it to be almost destructive in its intensity; a little frightening. Sawyer's arrival causes Reena to turn her life around - again - going so far as to break off her relationship with Aaron, the wonderful guy who genuinely wants to be part of her life. I particularly hate this trope, mainly because it causes a completely innocent third party - Aaron - to be hurt for no reason either than the fact that Reena and Sawyer need to be together. Why? I still have no idea.

You see, Sawyer may return to Florida willing to get his act together and become a father to Hannah, but that doesn't mean that he repents in the least or even tries to redeem himself. Instead, his mere presence causes Reena to - slowly - forgive him with time. Although I gradually warmed up to his character during the last fifth of this narrative (mostly because Reena yelled at him a lot which I thought he totally deserved), I cannot admit to truly comprehending the inner workings of this couple. I feel as if Sawyer has a lot to apologize for, both in impregnating Reena (even though, let's face it, that's her fault too), but mostly in disappearing from her life, accusing her of leaving him for college, and in dragging Reena into his lifestyle of drugs. While Sawyer's nature may appeal to many, it failed to win me over in the least, and I am left ending this book with a sour taste in my mouth. I really love the growth arc that Reena goes through, but I ultimately do not like either her or Sawyer.

And, that's almost what I like about books the most: I do not have to like these characters. I appreciate their complexity and their lives and I particularly admire the writing style their narration is told in, but I still do not believe that this story has reached its full potential. In my eyes, Sawyer needs to be fleshed out far more than he is. Not only do questions concerning his past need to be answered, but the relationship between himself and Reena isn't convincing enough - for me, at any rate. I think the inclusion of so much else in this book really worked in its favor, from the impact of teenage and adult friendships to the importance of family on ones own psyche. Furthermore, Cotugno does a true service to an honest portrayal of life as a teenage mom. How to Love certainly does have a lot to love, which is why I would not hesitate to recommend it to fans of contemporary romance, but while I will be looking out for Cotugno's future works - her writing is too good to miss - I won't be seeing this one again any time soon.

15 comments:

  1. There are so many mixed thoughts about this one--I love how you describe the MC, Reena. I think I'll click with her easily. I've been really ponderous upon whether I should read this mainly because of the idea. I like it but like you said, the love interest isn't convincing and well, this book is allll about the romance and lessons learnt.

    Fabulous review, Keertana! <33

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  2. I'm sorry you weren't able to love this book as you wanted to Keertana. I too was quite upset with the way Aaron was just fobbed off, he was really good for both Reena and Hannah and he had been there for both when Sawyer wasn't, but as soon as Sawyer waltzed in I knew how things would go down. I'm glad that despite not loving this book, you're still eager to give Cotugno's future books a try! Gorgeous review Keertana! :)

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    1. I knew exactly how events would play out concerning Aaron, but I think I just expected better from Reena. I at least wanted Aaron to back out of the relationship because he saw how good Reena and Sawyer were for each other, but that couldn't happen either because they simply weren't good for one another. I just felt so continuously terrible for Aaron'a character because it seemed as if Reena just strung him along, so then I lost all my respect for her too. *sigh* I think these characters were just a big mes after a point for me. :/

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  3. Oohhhhh. I was under the impression that Sawyer left when he found out she was pregnant, which definitely colored my perception of him and had me greatly disliking him before I even picked the book up. I like him better knowing he didn't know, but I'm still not sure he'll be someone who wins me over based on your thoughts on him Keertana! I think I'll leave this one on the "maybe" list for now, wonderful review!

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  4. Aw I'm sorry this didn't grip or swwon you as I hope. O thought generally from the description that it would have some underlining of it rather than faving the issues between the charavters. I have to say her writing sounds intense yet the whole Before and After thing I'm not a great lover of. Great review as always, Keertana! :)

    I'm blogging over at Girl's of YA, Check out a Halloween Event kicking off with The Girl's Paranormal Boys http://girlsofya.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/the-girls-paranormal-guys.html

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  5. Hm... not sure about this one. Looks like it almost wins in the character category. Great positives, but some negatives that just keep them out of reach. Might try a book by her, but perhaps not this one. Brilly review!

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  6. I was just reading a review Tanja wrote on this and she gave this 3 stars as well. Jenny's comment over there hit the nail on the head for me. I doubt I'd be able to forgive Sawyer after his behavior and it would ruin the book for me. He sounds like a total jerk. Great review, Keertana. This is a pass for me. :)

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  7. It's funny because usually you and Jenny jump onto the latest contemporary romance read, and I almost think the two of you would enjoy this since you're far more romantic than I am, but Sawyer ruined this one for me. I'll be really interested in your take on it should you choose to pick it up, Rachel!(:

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  8. Your review is the first one I've read that isn't super positive. It was pretty interesting to read your perspective on this book since, like you, many times the aspect of novels I struggle the most with is the romance. Obviously the romance sounds like it is an integral part of this novel and not thrown in there unnecessarily, so at least there's that comforting fact. Based on what you've said here, though, I know that I'd have a difficult time liking Sawyer (if I did at all). I haven't really read any books on teen pregnancy (and like you I tend to be judgy about it as well), but I would like to try reading one. Perhaps Small Damages instead, though.

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    1. Amanda, Small Damages is AMAZING! It's a short novel, told in verse if I remember correctly, and it's about a teenage girl sent to Spain to have her unwanted pregnancy. It's so incredibly thoughtful and really changed my perspective on teen pregnancy, never romanticizing it. I can't recommend it enough, so I hope you definitely give that one a try, even if not this book!(:

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  9. Hmm.. after reading some 5 star reviews, and then yours, I have to say I think I would feel much the same as Keertana. The way the character of Sawyer was developed (or not developed) and the way the relationship plays out would bother me too. I'm fine with the portrayal of unhealthy relationships, but I want the author to make me understand it. I'm not going to emotionally buy it a relationship "just because". I need a better reason than that. Also, I'm kind of tired of "all or nothing" romances, where it almost seems that the couple are fated to be together at whatever cost, can't possibly survive unless they're together. So thanks for writing this, Keertana, you raised some issues that I would definitely have with it too.

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  10. Okay, about this book. It seems like everyone agrees that How to Love is extremely well written and an accurate portrayal of teen pregnancy, but most people have a big problem with Sawyer. I read this one way before all the buzz started, and I'm not sure why I was able to handle Sawyer. Especially, because I've recently read at least 3 contemporary romances featuring guys I couldn't stand, although others have loved. Sawyer will never be my favorite guy, but I like that he's out there flaws and all, and for some reason I bought him enough to love this book. Maybe it's because the author doesn't apologize for him?

    I agree that it took me a long time to come to terms with Sawyer and Rena as a couple in the After. But I attributed all of his "bad" behavior to the big secret he reveals near the end of the story. Although we don't know for sure, I assumed that Sawyer began to self destruct when Allie died and he had massive internal guilt over that entire situation. I assumed that's the part where the painkillers started, and it spiraled from there. I could definitely, imagine something like that eating him so much inside that he took drugs to cope and eventually just had to leave. Even though he was falling for Reena, he was unable to get past himself enough to be healthy at the time.

    Whatever happens, it's clear these two still have a massive amount of work ahead of them if they want to make anything work, and I'm not convinced that they would ever make it long term.

    But in any case, I'm glad you did find something to like about this book, and I'm definitely curious about what else Cotugno writes.

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    1. I agree that the ending of this book really is realistic, mixed in with hope but the knowledge that they might not make it anyway - that I liked. I can see how Allie's death would have totally broken him, but I wish it was more explicit. Plus, Sawyer had been having problems with his father and issues that Reena's father hinted at that seemed more long-term opposed to recent hurdles. And while, yes, the author never paints Sawyer to be someone better than he is, she also conveniently moves the novel around him to benefit him, which I wasn't a fan of. Even through Reena's perspective, I couldn't see what she liked about him. I think he just had such few redeeming qualities that I wasn't hooked, sadly. I really love this comment, though, Lauren - it made me think about Sawyer a lot more for sure, so thank you for that! :)

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  11. I have this and have been looking forward to it, even though I knew little about the plot!

    I won't have high expectations when I get to it, and I sometimes find before & after stories hard to keep track of

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