The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Everything You Wanted, Everything You Don't (Review: How to Love by Katie Cotugno)

How to Love
Katie Cotugno
Quercus 2013

Reena loved Sawyer for a long, long time.  She loved him from afar, never believing he’d ever think of her the same way, especially when he took up with her best friend, Allie.  But then he does and then Allie is gone and after a while so is Sawyer, leaving behind Reena and a pregnancy and no way to reach him.  Three years later, Reena and her daughter are OK. Life isn’t perfect but Reena is managing.  Until Sawyer appears as suddenly as he disappeared, drawing in his wake the same emotional wreckage that Reena has fought to rid herself of.   Reena is angry and hurt and confused and above all she is determined not to let Sawyer into her life again but love, like life, is messy and complicated and Reena is about to learn just how hard it can be.

Reena is an excellent character, be it in the present day as a young mother, or her previous incarnation of a young adult both desperate and reluctant to leave childhood behind.  She’s responsible and focused but her yearning for the life of travel and writing she had planned for is tangible, even as it is contrasted with the fierce love she has for her daughter.  Her relationship with Sawyer, in all its forms is always compelling but particularly the “before” sections where Sawyer’s slowly changing personality is seen through her reluctantly unhappy eyes.  When he reappears, Reena’s reluctance to let him in is both admirable and moving and her tangled feelings are never anything other than believable.

Sawyer himself is extremely well written.  To an extent, he’s coasted through life on charm, used to getting his own way.  The guilt that he so clearly feels is understandable but as the story progresses it becomes almost self-indulgent.  On his return, he seems to be at once changed at also exactly the same, inserting himself into Reena’s life with an ease and arrogance that is almost insulting and is certainly infuriating to her.  Yet, he is utterly likable.  Cotugno has succeeded in writing a character who is deeply and realistically flawed yet also entirely sympathetic.  Other characters are also beautifully and delicately drawn with Reena’s family and friends being particularly interesting.  Reena’s father and his palpable disappointment is especially well done as is Sawyer’s head-in-sand mother.

The storyline of How to Love seems at first a well-worn one.  Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl has to decide whether to take boy back – you know the kind of thing.  Yet Katie Cotugno has written a nuanced and accomplished exploration of not only the tangled relationship between Reena and Sawyer but also their relationships with those around them.  Reena’s unconditional love for her daughter is contrasted with her relationship with a father whose love for her, she feels, turned out to be extremely conditional.  Equally, Shelby – a character who so easily could have been a stereotypical loyal best friend – calls Reena on her mistakes, gets mad at her, forgives her, gets mad again… in a way that shouts of real life friendships.   The issues between Sawyer and Reena are shown to be messy, their relationship has always been imperfect but due to the aforementioned characterization of Sawyer, readers will understand Reena’s anger but also her attraction.  So often, particularly with the emergence of the often ghastly New Adult genre, characters like Sawyer are written as physically attractive but reprehensible creatures with few redeeming qualities and a girl who makes excuses for them while hardly knowing them at all.  Here, Sawyer’s behavior is never excused away and Reena’s confused feelings are believable because he’s three-dimensional and interesting. In short, Cotugno has excelled in portraying the messiness of both their relationship and all relationships while also reminding readers of why it can all be worth fighting for.

The writing in How to Love is exceptionally good, Cotugno having a seemingly effortless knack of finding exactly the right words to portray deep emotion, particularly in terms of Reena’s unplanned pregnancy.  As one who has shared Reena’s experience, all be it as an adult, her statement that she “spent those long foggy months sure of nothing so much as the feeling of standing on the edge of a canyon and screaming, waiting for an echo that refused to come” reduced me to tears of recognition and understanding.  And the writing is all that good.  How to Love is one of the standout books of 2013 and Cotugno is someone who the Sarah Dessen’s and Sara Zarr’s of the YA world should be watching out for.  There’s a new kid on the contemporary block and she’s hitting it out of the park.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. How to Love is available now. Thank you to Quercus for sending us this title to review.

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