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.