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A gripping novel full of suspense and pathos that Dennis Lehane calls an "electrifying, tomahawk missile of a thriller."
Patrick Cusimano is in a bad way. His father is in jail; he works the midnight shift at a grubby convenience store; and his brother's girlfriend, Caro, has taken their friendship to an uncomfortable new level. On top of all that, he can't quite shake the attentions of Layla Elshere, a goth teenager who befriends Patrick for reasons he doesn't understand, and doesn't fully trust. The temptations these two women offer are pushing Patrick to his breaking point.
Meanwhile, Layla's little sister, Verna, is suffering through her first year of high school. She's become a prime target for her cruel classmates, not just because of her strange name and her fundamentalist parents: Layla's bad-girl rep proves to be too a huge shadow for Verna, so she falls in with her sister's circle of outcasts and misfits whose world is far darker than she ever imagined.
Kelly Braffet's characters, indelibly portrayed and richly varied, are all on their own twisted path to finding peace. The result is a novel of unnerving power - darkly compelling, addictively written, and shockingly honest.
Patrick worked the day shift at Zoney's GoMart one Wednesday a month: sealed into the vacuum-packed chill behind the convenience store's dirty plate-glass windows, watching cars zoom by on the highway while he stood still. When he worked nights, the way he usually did, the world was dark and quiet and calm outside and it made him feel dark and quiet and calm inside. When he worked days, all he felt was trapped.
So by the time he made it out of the store that evening, he was just glad to be free. His eyes were hot with exhaustion and the odor of the place lingered on his clothes--stale potato chips, old candy, the thick syrupy smell of the soda fountain--but the warm September air felt good. As he rounded the corner of the building and headed toward the Dumpsters where he'd parked, back where the asphalt had almost crumbled into gravel and the weeds grew tall right up to the edge of the lot, the car keys in his hand were still cold from the air conditioner. That was all he was thinking about.
Then he saw the goth girl leaning against his car.
He'd seen her before. She'd been in the store earlier that day, when Bill came by to pick up his paycheck. Patrick had kept an eye on her because he didn't have anything else to do and because she'd been there too long, fucking with her coffee and staring into the beverage cases. Not that Patrick, personally, gave a shit what or how much she stole, but as long as she was there he'd felt at least a nominal responsibility to look concerned for the security cameras. Then Bill had called her Bride of Dracula and made an obscene suggestion, and she'd called him a degenerate and stormed out in what Patrick assumed was a huff. He and Bill had laughed about it, and he hadn't thought any more about her.
But now here she was, leaning on his car like she belonged there and staring at him with eyes as huge and merciless as camera lenses. In the dimming light, her dyed-black hair and her almost-black lipstick made her pale skin look nearly blue. She held a brown cigarette even though she looked all of sixteen, her expression a well-rehearsed mixture of indifference and faint amusement. When she saw him her lips curled in something like a smile.
"Hello," she said.
Patrick stopped. Her earrings were tiny, fully articulated human skeletons. He tried to figure out if he knew her, if underneath all that crap she was somebody from the neighborhood or somebody's kid sister that he hadn't seen since she was ten. He didn't think so. "If you're looking for weed," he told her, "you got the wrong night. That guy works Mondays."
"You mean your degenerate friend from this morning?" She laughed. It was a Hollywood laugh, as stale as the air inside the store he'd just left. "Hardly."
"Whatever." Patrick was too tired for this shit. He pointed to his car door and she moved back, but not enough. It was hard to avoid touching her as he got in. He slipped his keys into the ignition, buckled his seat belt, and rolled down the window, all the while acutely aware of the girl's big spidery eyes staring at him through the dirty glass. He turned on the engine.
She waited, watching him.
"Do I know you?" he finally asked.
"No." She leaned down into the open window. "But I know you." There was a ring shaped like a coffin on one of her fingers. Patrick wondered if the skeleton earrings fit inside it. She smelled sweet and slightly burned, like incense. To Patrick's dismay her black tank top fell in such a way that he could see her lacy purple bra, whether he wanted to or not. Jesus. He looked back up at her face.
Staring at him through thickly painted eyelashes, she said, "You're Patrick Cusimano. Your dad was the one who killed Ryan Czerpak."
"Ryan's family comes to my dad's worship group," the goth girl said, peering curiously past him into the backseat. "I used to babysit for them sometimes." Then she saw Patrick's face, and her blood-colored lips opened.
Excerpted from Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet Copyright © 2013 by Kelly Braffet. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
"Happy families are all alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Leo Tolstoy might not have had the families of Kelly Braffet's dark novel, Save Yourself in mind when he wrote those words, but he might as well have.
On the one hand there is the Cusimano family: Patrick and Ryan Cusimano are brothers living in the huge shadow of their father's crime. Years ago, when Patrick was still a teenager, his father killed a child in a drunk-driving accident. It was Patrick who eventually called the police leaving him and his brother effectively without parents. That tragedy, as well as their father's alcoholism, forever haunt the brothers. As the book opens, they are young adults getting by on minimum wage jobs, sharing their childhood home with Ryan's girlfriend who also works an unfulfilling job as waitress at a local restaurant in the fictional small town of Ratchetsburg, Pennsylvania.
Then there are the Elshere sisters: Layla and Verna are daughters of fundamentalist Christians, who are trying to break free of their family's smothering grip unfortunately without much success. A few years prior Layla, the older of the two, came home from high school with sex education materials and her parents completely lost it. Their minister father decided to launch a campaign against the school system's allegedly liberal values, which resulted in Layla's total embarrassment. As a way of coping with the fallout, she goes Goth and falls in with a dangerously edgy group of kids. As the book opens, Verna has just entered her freshman year of high school and, weighed down by her family's history, is the target of relentless bullying.
As the story progresses, the lives of these deeply troubled characters intertwine in interesting and dangerous ways. The narrative moves forward at a steady clip until the dramatic (if slightly confusing) ending. A word of caution: this is an extremely dark book. The relentless bullying mentioned here is just the tip of the iceberg and Save Yourself is definitely not for the faint of heart. I also want to add that while the book's characters are mostly teenagers and young adults, I wouldn't qualify it as a young adult book.
What makes the book shine despite this darkness is the way Braffet illuminates the desperation of small-town America and the sheer magnitude of her characters' lack of opportunities. She writes,
"To Patrick it felt like the three of them were planets that came into alignment once a week or so, shared a few beers and some hot wings, and then spun back out into their own separate orbits. The other world, the world he'd belonged to before that afternoon when the old man had stepped out of the Lucky Strike and decided he was sober enough to drive - that world, presumably, kept spinning, somewhere out there, but Patrick didn't live there anymore. He'd fallen into a numb kind of stasis and after a while he couldn't tell the difference between the long quiet nights he spent alone in the store and the long quiet days he spent sleeping off the nights. They both felt the same. They both felt like nothing."
What is especially heartbreaking is seeing the double whammy these characters are dealt. The tremendous weight of extreme family dysfunction combined with the lack of a proper education (the latter probably being caused by the former) is enough to make anyone come undone. "Families were like oceans," Braffet writes, "You never knew what was under the surface, in the parts you hadn't seen." As Save Yourself shows, there are a lot of dangerous eddies and undertows beneath the surface. That these characters try and make the best of their circumstances anyway is a testament to the power of people willing to somehow make their way and trudge on against all odds.
There are instances when the extreme darkness seems endless but Braffet's incisive writing is brilliant and edgy and it keeps you reading through the worst of it. There's something strangely mesmerizing in watching the characters' brave struggles. "Didn't you ever want to erase your whole life, everything you've ever done?" asks Layla at one point, "Because I do. I want to be somebody completely new. I want to be somebody I've never even met." Will anybody in this darkly compelling novel get a chance at redemption or will escape be forever elusive? It is no coincidence that Patrick realizes the Eagles song that plays endlessly at the convenience store where he works could well apply to his life: "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." Truer words, he knows, have never been spoken.
Reviewed by Poornima Apte
In Save Yourself, Patrick Cusimano works at Zoney's, a 24-hour convenience store in a small fictional town in Pennsylvania called Ratchetsburg. He finds his candy-striped uniform and the sterile atmosphere of the place stifling, yet work here is one of just a few options for town residents. From what Braffet describes, it seems like Zoney's is the only food store around for miles. Such areas, where access to fresh produce and food is quite limited, are labeled "food deserts."
According to the USDA, an area qualifies as a food desert if it is both a "low-income" community and also a "low-access" community. "Low income" as defined for these purposes by the USDA is a census tract (a statistical segment of a county designated for census purposes) with 20 percent or more of the population living below the poverty line. "Low-access" is defined as 500 people or 33 percent of a census tract's population living more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. Food deserts can be in both urban centers as well as rural areas.
Food deserts are a problem because of the local population's over-reliance on convenience stores as the source of their nutrition. Convenience stores are mostly stocked with high-sugar, fatty processed foods (the reasons for this are worth exploring in the wonderful book, Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss) leading to the larger problem of obesity.
In her fight against obesity, First Lady Michelle Obama has included food deserts as part of the many challenges the United States must overcome. Large retailers have promised to include more fresh options in the existing stores in food deserts as well as open new stores to aid underserved communities.
Other solutions include turning to urban farming in city centers which are food deserts. The Boston-based City Growers works to convert vacant urban lots into plots for growing food. Boston also boasts an interesting concept called a mobile food pantry that delivers needed supplies to food deserts such as Germantown, a neighborhood about 12 miles south of the city. The food is free and distributed to residents who show up, without verifying need. Programs such as these have been also been implemented in other cities, and might make a dent in the problem, but it remains to be seen whether they can be sustainable solutions to the long-term issue of food deserts.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has an interactive tool that effectively showcases the widespread prevalence of this problem. The Food Desert Locator helps users find these environments and explains how severe each case is.
Some have argued that the "food desert" rhetoric blames the obesity epidemic squarely on the lack of healthy food options while obesity is actually caused by a number of factors including a sedentary lifestyle.
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