Also by this author: 99 Days, 9 Days & 9 Nights, You Say It First
Published by Balzer + Bray on October 1st, 2013
Genres: Coming of Age, Contemporary, Young Adult
Pages: 389 •Format: E-Book •Source: Overdrive
Before: Reena Montero has loved Sawyer LeGrande for as long as she can remember. But he's never noticed that Reena even exists . . . until one day, impossibly, he does. Reena and Sawyer fall in messy, complicated love. But then Sawyer disappears without a word, leaving a devastated—and pregnant—Reena behind.
After: Almost three years have passed, and there's a new love in Reena's life: her daughter. Reena's gotten used to life without Sawyer, but just as suddenly as he disappeared, he turns up again. Reena wants nothing to do with him, though she'd be lying if she said his being back wasn't stirring something in her.
After everything that's happened, can Reena really let herself love Sawyer LeGrande again?
I swear, Katie Cotugno never fails to disappoint me. She takes the realest, rawest emotions from being a teenager and manages to spin them into a story that takes me right back into that state of mind, empathizing with the characters even if I haven’t been in their exact situation before. Such was the case when I read How to Love, which I requested from my library on a whim, and absolutely tore through it, inhaling it in a way I haven’t read a contemporary YA novel in a while.
The story follows protagonist Reena, who is a teen mother doing the best she can to provide for her daughter after her father’s daughter left her without a word several years ago. While Reena had dreams of college, of travel, of being a travel writer, she’s managed to carve out a decent little life for herself and her daughter, despite the less than ideal circumstances, and the family tension constantly bubbling under the surface in her home. Then out of nowhere, Sawyer, the messy, irresponsible love of her life returns and throws everything she carefully cultivated the past three years for a loop.
Told in alternating POV chapters of the “before” and “after” of Sawyer leaving, readers gradually get to see how Sawyer and Reena fell in love juxtaposed against their messy, fraught relationship once he returns. I can see how the story would frustrate many readers- both Sawyer and Reena can be very unlikable at times, and their attraction for each other often leaves others hurt and as collateral damage in the wake of their love story. Sawyer especially is often arrogant and selfish and Reena is really angry and scathing toward him (understandably so) but still has a very obvious tender spot in her heart for him. And like her BFF Shelby says at one point in the novel, their dysfunctional patterns start repeating themselves all these years later in almost eerie similarity. However, I feel like while no ideal it is realistic- didn’t we all have that one teenage relationship that was not good for us but that we couldn’t stop being drawn too anyways? That toxic relationship that is the baseline by which we judge and compare every healthy relationship we have thereafter? The difference is, for Reena and Sawyer, there is a child involved, and cutting ties is that much harder- not to say that’s a good thing, but it could be a realistic one, as these things do happen.
I will say that throughout the course of the novel we see Reena and Sawyer get more adult and real with each other, and ultimately see the power dynamic between them start to shift to be more equitable. Toward the end of the novel, Reena starts taking steps toward becoming the person she wants to be without using her daughter as an excuse for why she can’t be, and slowly backs away from her people pleasing personality. These deeply ingrained personality traits don’t change overnight though, and I think it’s realistic that the novel doesn’t have a happily ever after or even a conclusive “what’s next” for Reena and Hannah- they are starting on their own journey and inviting Sawyer to be apart of it on Reena’s terms, instead of the other way around, like it used to always be.
One thing I thought Cotugno did really well is make this a book about a young mother and her relationships and own journey rather than it being a book about teen pregnancy or teen motherhood in and of itself. Reena’s daughter actually isn’t really featured that much (she’s there, but she’s not always the main focus in the scenes). It’s not a book that will hit you over the head with messages like TEEN MOTHERHOOD IS WRONG and LOOK HOW RUINED HER LIFE IS. Rather, it shows how Reena adjusts and continues on in her life and deals with the changes in her relationship and within her own self now that she’s entered a new phase in her life. It also focuses on both the positives and negatives, but what I really enjoyed was the nuance with which Cotugno handled Reena’s relationship with her father, a devout Catholic. The oppressive shame and silence that he weaponizes against Reena even all of these years later comes to a boiling point and that was honestly one of my favorite parts of the story, where Reena confronts all of the “adults” in her life for their judgement, their choosing to look the other way, and their tendency to place the bulk of the blame for her situation on herself rather than Sawyer. It’s heartbreaking to read but so, so relevant to show the inherent sexism that is often rampant in situations like these and how that has impacted both Reena’s and Sawyer’s relationships with their families differently.
Overall: How to Love is an unconventional love story that exposes the raw and not so pretty side of a relationship. If you’re looking for a more mature YA novel this one will likely fit the bill!