Taking one of our semi-regular trips outside the strict bounds of this blog's mission statement, tonight I've got a brief review of Save Yourself, the recently-published novel by Kelly Braffet.
Braffet, in case you didn't already know this, is Owen King's wife, which makes her the daughter-in-law of Stephen and Tabitha King, and the sister-in-law of Joe Hill. I confess, that's why I read Save Yourself: curiosity based on the fact that her husband and in-laws are awesome writers.
The next time I read a Kelly Braffet book, however, I'll be reading it because she is an awesome writer. And that won't be long from now, either; I've got her first two books, Last Seen Leaving and Josie and Jack, and one of them is liable to be the next thing I pick up.
Save Yourself is the story of Patrick Cusimano, a guy in his mid-twenties who still lives at home, but not with his parents: his mother is dead, and his father is in jail for having drunkenly run over and killed a little boy. Patrick lives with his brother, Mike, and Mike's girlfriend, Caro.
The story's events are propelled into motion when Patrick is approached at work -- he's the overnight clerk at a gas station -- by Layla Elshere. Layla is a goth-girl teenager who has heard about Patrick and Mike via her parents' prayer group, which is attended by the parents of the little boy Patrick's father ran over. She is curious about Patrick because she has heard he is a monster (for having waited nineteen hours to call the police after their father came home drunk, crying, and with what appeared to be a baby tooth stuck in the front bumper of his car); and Layla has a thing for monsters.
The second of the novel's three primary characters is Layla's sister, Verna Elshere, who is just beginning high school and finds out the hard way that being bullied is a rough gig. Her father was instrumental in getting a beloved teacher fired for teaching "inappropriate" sex ed lessons, and the fired teacher has a relative in school who is -- along with her many, many friends -- determined to make "Venereal" Elshere's life a living hell. Turns out they're pretty good at it, too. Unlike her sister, who has rebelled against her parents and started doing things like dyeing her hair, wearing combat boots, cursing, smoking, and sucking the occasional dick, Verna is a good girl. Will she stay that way? You'll have to read the novel to find out, but if you're guessing "probably not," then I'm winking at you.
The third main character of the book is Caro (short for Carolyn), who is in a fairly serious relationship with Mike Cusimano. She's not entirely satisfied by Mike, though; he never takes her anywhere, though he frequently promises to do so. And while he seems to offer the possibility of stability and normalcy, Caro has just enough crippling self-doubt to wonder if she is well-suited to that sort of life. Her mother, you see...her mother had, um, issues. And Caro is afraid that those issues might travel, genetically-speaking.
As you might expect, the lives of these people -- plus a few others not named here -- begin to intersect thanks to Patrick's confrontation with Layla. You won't get from me any of the details as to how that happens, or what the results are. All I'll say is that in a year that has seen the publication of Double Feature, NOS4A2, and Joyland, Save Yourself is quite possibly my favorite book from the extended King family. And I say that as someone who loved all four novels; if they all had one thing in common, it was that when they ended, I just wanted them to keep on going.
They're all very different novels, in terms of both plot and style; and in terms of tone, as well. But they also share some common themes: all four are about broken love affairs; all four are about loss; all four are about redemption. Double Feature and Save Yourself have some interesting overlap in terms of dealing with characters whose lives get shaken up by videos they'd prefer other people not see ending up online. What I'm suggesting is that these are the works of a group of people who have probably had some serious influence on each other; and in all cases, I think the influence has been beneficial.
Of the whole group, though, I think it is Save Yourself that resonates with me the most. The four main characters -- Patrick, Caro, Verna, and Layla (who doesn't get her own point-of-view chapters but haunts everyone else's to one degree or another) -- all utterly entranced me in different ways. Patrick frustrated me, because while he is a good guy, he is capable of better, and I kept wanting him to be better; Caro is the sort of damaged-but-resilient woman I've always (unfortunately/fortunately) found myself attracted to; Layla is another sort of damaged woman (girl, in her case), the kind I wish I had paid more attention to when I was in high school; and poor Verna is just a good girl trying to do her best to stay good in the midst of a whole lot of bad, and if you can't sympathize with her, I don't know who you can sympathize with.
I read Save Yourself more or less in three sustained sittings. It isn't a long novel; a little over 300 pages. Still, that's an average of a hundred pages or so per sitting, and that only happens when a book is truly working on me. The closer it got to the end, the more scared I got that it was all going to run right off the rails.
It never did.
A little mood music prior to wrapping up, from one of the best albums ever recorded and a band who gets referenced in the novel:
If you're curious about Braffet, here are a couple of places you might want to consider starting: first, an article from the New York Times Magazine about the King clan. It's a great piece, and ought to be required reading for any King fan, King fan, Hill fan, King fan, or Braffet fan. Second, Braffet's appearance on the podcast The Book Show, where she talks fairly in-depth about certain aspects of the novel (though not with heavy-duty spoilers); it's worth listening to once prior to reading the book, and then a second time after.
Since this is a Stephen King-centric blog, I suppose I also ought to mention that Save Yourself made me think of Carrie a few times, insomuch as it is (partially) the story of a heavily picked-on teenage girl who would really rather be left alone. She even has heavily-religious parents! The similarities more or less end there, though; there's nothing supernatural at work here, and while it could arguably be called a thriller, it certainly wouldn't classify as horror. Instead, it reads like the work of a woman who probably knew a few real-life Carries in her time, just without all the telekinesis and pigs' blood and whatnot. This is a deeply-felt novel that had me feeling pretty deeply, too.
And that is a damn fine combination.
EDIT: I totally forgot to include this awesome photo of Joe Hill, doing what Joe Hill does. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a valid reason for the existence of the Internet:
That makes me feel weird.