"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.
This review was originally published in August 2013, and has been updated for the May 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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