This Song Will Save Your Life
by Leila Sales
September 13, 2013
Farrar, Straus and Giroux BYR
Source: Around the World ARC Tours
Making friends has never been Elise Dembowski’s strong suit. All throughout her life, she’s been the butt of every joke and the outsider in every conversation. When a final attempt at popularity fails, Elise nearly gives up. Then she stumbles upon a warehouse party where she meets Vicky, a girl in a band who accepts her; Char, a cute, yet mysterious disc jockey; Pippa, a carefree spirit from England; and most importantly, a love for DJing.
Told in a refreshingly genuine and laugh-out-loud funny voice, THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE is an exuberant novel about identity, friendship, and the power of music to bring people together (Goodreads Summary.)
You think it’s so easy to change yourself. You think its so easy, but it’s not.
My Take On It
When I read the synopsis for This Song Will Save Your Life I KNEW. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was a “Heather” book. It’s contemporary YA for starters and it’s about a DJ. A GIRL DJ. If you follow this blog then you are probably aware of how much I loooove music themes in the books that I read. I had already heard very good things about Leila Sales previous book, Past Perfect, so I was positively thrilled to be able to read an early copy.
Wow. You guys, this book BLEW ME AWAY. Heads up: this IS going to be a super fangirly review, complete with a ton of excerpts, so prepare yourselves. There are so many things that I loved about this book it’s actually kind of hard for me to get started (you guys know what that’s like, amiright?)
So, here’s what you should know that I didn’t when you start This Song Will Save Your Life: our introduction to protagonist Elise is not exactly light and airy. Elise is in a dark place at the beginning of this book. Much darker than I anticipated from that brief synopsis above.
You think it’s so easy to change yourself.
You think it’s easy, but it’s not.
What do you think it takes to reinvent yourself as an all-new person, a person who makes sense, who belongs? Do you change your clothes, your hair,your face? Go on, then. Do it. Pierce your ears, trim your bangs, buy a new purse. They will still see past that, see you, the girl who is still too scared, still so smart for her own good, still a beat behind, still–always wrong. Change all you want; you can’t change that.
I know because I tried.
You soon learn that Elise is a true outcast. Shunned at school not only by the popular cliques but by all the others as well. The funny thing is there doesn’t seem to be any real reason WHY Elise is treated this way. Elise says it herself. She can’t pinpoint any event or occurrence in her past that led to her to being like this–astray as she puts it. She was ALWAYS astray. Always different.
Now look, I’ve read a lot of YA books about unpopular kids in high school. It’s a real life thing so it’s something that is picked up on in young adult books all the time. But I have never read anything like the loneliness and utter hopelessness that Elise describes in that first chapter. Guys, it was HARD to read. Elise tries to fit in. She tries, as the excerpt says above, to reinvent herself. She spends an entire summer studying how to be “cool.” And when her plans failed it hit me so sharply that it made my teeth ache.
You think it’s so easy to change yourself but it’s fucking impossible.
Thankfully, the next chapter, though still dark, allows readers to see another side of Elise: a lighter side, her sense of humor. Elise is a bruised girl on the inside, but damn if she isn’t funny too.
I didn’t really want to die to MP3’s. I wanted to die to records. The sound quality is better.
It turns out that even though Elise was ready and willing to change her look and most of her interests to fit in and belong with ANY group, to fit in just enough to make a friend, there was one thing she refused back down on: her love of music. And not that crappy pop stuff that all the other sheep at her high school listened to, HER type of music. GOOD music. In fact, Elise is pretty much a music connoisseur. Her father is a musician, the bassist in a “one hit wonder” band. And it’s clear that Elise’s vast musical knowledge, she’s just as big a fan of James Brown as she is The Smiths and The Strokes, is inherited from her dad.
But it’s a chance late night meeting with two girls that will change Elise’s life forever.
Pippa and Vicky take her to Start–an underground club located in warehouse not far from her house. For Elise it’s an experience that leaves her reeling.
The door opened to reveal a packed dance floor of sweaty, flailing bodies illuminated by occasional flashing lights in the otherwise dimly lit, high-ceilinged room. “Dancing in the Dark” was blasting from the speakers twice my height, and most of the crowd was singing along like their lives depended on it, except for a guy who was taking photos with an expensive-looking camera, a few girls who were waiting in a bathroom line, and two guys who were hardcore making out, complete with ass-grabbing and saliva-drenched French kissing.
“This is a nightclub?” I asked, then repeated, louder, when I realized no one could hear me.
“It’s Start!” Vicky replied. Her normal speaking voice was loud enough that she didn’t even have to try to project over the music. “The greatest underground dance party in the world!”
Meeting Vicky and Pippa that night is the turning point in this story as Elise, who has never once in her life felt that she truly belonged, finally finds her niche. She soon meets Char, short for DJ This Charming Man, so named after The Smith’s song, who introduces her to the world of nightclubs and DJing–among other things. Char teaches Elise the technical aspects of DJing, matching beats and using a mixer, as well as the more important ability to be able to know your audience, read your crowd. And Elise takes to this like a duck to water, you guys. For once in her life, Elise knows what it means to belong.
I know that humility is a valued trait, but there’s no way to be humble about this one: I was on fire. It wasn’t just that I had mastered the technical skills, thanks to my hours and hours of practice over the past week. It was more that something had clicked, and now I understood what Char meant about reading the crowd. They will tell you what they want. They will tell you vocally sometimes, with loud requests shouted into your ear at the least convenient times, right as you are trying to transition between songs, or with Post-its stuck to you. And they will tell you silently, by dancing or not dancing, smiling or not smiling, listening or not listening.
Tonight I had Start in the palm of my hand. They loved me, and I loved me too.
I loved how authentic This Song Will Save Your Life is. Elise is painfully awkward at times, she says the wrong things at the wrong time–she feels way out of her league at others. But you can see her BLOSSOM in this book. And when you are reading about her highs and reading about her lows, I GUARANTEE you will be cheering this girl on every step of the way.
Let’s talk about the second best person in this book: Vicky Blanchet, rock star. Oh you guys, I am a total sucker for secondary characters- TOTAL SUCKER- and Vicky is one of the best I have ever, ever read. Vicky, lead singer of the band the Dirty Curtains, is larger than life, and embraces Elise from the start. She is funny. She is wise. She’s the best friend we all wish we had and, most important, she is EXACTLY what Elise needed.
Here for your reading enjoyment, a few of my favorite Vicky-ism’s:
“This will all resolve itself on the dance floor.”
“You can’t shred on drums, dipshit, ” Vicky told him. “Only guitarists shred.”
“He’s there to document our glory days.”
“He’s such a waste of a good haircut.”
I’ve kissed way too many boys at Start already,” Vicky confided to me, sounding world-weary. “I’m over them. They’re all in bands.”
“But you’re in a band, ” I pointed out.
“Exactly. So why would I need them?”
Vicky is just what the doctor ordered. She ROCKS plain and simple. That is all.
And there are others amazing characters. There’s Mel, the insightful bouncer/door guy with a heart of gold; there’s Pippa, who has her own set of problems but you just can’t help but like her anyway; and there’s Harry, who I can’t help but wish we had a bit more of because the little we do get is awesome:) And Elise’s family plays a very large role in this book. Her dad is completely awesome and guess what? They act like REAL parents. They are present in Elise’s life. They may be a little unaware at times, but they make up for it all in the end. Woo hoo! for including the parentals Leila Sales! Thanks for not tossing them to the wayside like so many other YA books do:)
And what of the romance?? Well, Char is a complicated character– do you dislike two-dimensional, seemingly unattainable, perfect love interests? Then I think you are going to enjoy reading about Char. I’m not going to go into a ton of detail but I think he’s a great character overall. Is he the most likable all the time? No. Am I fan of him and all his decisions? No. But he’s REAL. He’s got hang-ups and issues like all of us. And he teaches Elise how to spin, he opens her up to new possibilities, so for that reason alone I am, after all is said and done, a Char fan. He’s swoony for sure:
Char and I alternated songs for the next half hour or so. I played some oldies; the Contours, James Brown, stuff like that. That was my dad’s favorite sort of music to play, and I wondered how he spent a Thursday night at home without me. Char was playing more eighties: Prince, Edwyn Collins, Transvision Vamp. He put on New Order’s “Temptation,” and we both took off our headphones and relaxed for a moment, leaning against the booth’s railings. “Temptation” is a long song.
“This one could be about you,” Char said, looking at me.
I tilted my head. “Why?”
He sang along with the song. “‘Oh, you’ve got green eyes, oh, you’ve got blue eyes, oh, you’ve got gray eyes.'”
“They’re usually blue,” I said. “Blue-ish gray.”
He sang again, “‘Oh, you’ve got green eyes, oh, you’ve got blue eyes, oh, you’ve gray eyes.'”
“They only look green when I wear a green shirt,” I said.
“‘And I’ve never seen anyone quite like you before,”” Char sang along.
I joined in “‘No, I’ve never met anyone quite like you before.”
We both fell silent and looked at each other for a moment.
And then he kissed me.
I pulled away almost instantly, as if I’d received an electric shock. “What did you do that for?” I demanded, my hand flying to my mouth.
Char reached out and gently removed my hand from my face. “Because I wanted to,” he answered quietly, and, still holding my hand in his, he kissed me again.
It’s sweet, right? It makes you want to listen to that song, doesn’t it? 🙂 And I include it because Char can be really awesome. But he can also be a real ass, too. And in the end he teaches Elise more then DJing, he teaches her some important life lessons as well, and Elise comes out better on the other side because of it.
But what about the MUSIC?? So, straight up the reason I wanted to read This Song Will Save Your Life was for the music. And it did not disappoint. My first serious boyfriend was a DJ. And I spent many, many nights with him in the DJ booth. This was when DJ’s still spun records, mostly 7 and 12 inch’s–the extended dance versions– and every record had a label with a number on it which told how many BPM’s (beats per minutes) the song had. That was how you beat matched before the days of MP3’s and digital recordings. He introduced me to so many amazing artists and songs–and I think he, more than anyone else, molded me into the music lover that I am today.
For me, reading This Song Will Save Your Life was a huge walk down memory lane. HUGE. The music that Sales mentions in the book, the descriptions of Start, the DJing skills that Char teaches Elise–all of it brought the biggest grin to my face as I was reading because I totally get WHY Elise feels like she does about music. I understand the power that a song can hold. The passion that you feel over a piece of music and the feeling of certainty that that song was written JUST FOR YOU. And later, the nostalgia you feel when you hear a song from way back, a song that has the power to stir so many memories. A song that reminds you of that guy or girl who was the center of your world; or that song that reminds you of that awesome night you spent with your best friends; or the song that helped you get through that awful break up, the one you thought you would never get past. The Beginning of Everything author Kari Luna got it right when she said “Music is Memory,” and This Song Will Save Your Life was a nostalgia-filled walk down memory lane for me.
But music aside, the real beauty of Leila Sales’ book and Elise’s story is in the message it sends. The message that no matter what you are dealing with, isolation, loneliness, bullying, despair or heartbreak, you should always remember that you are not alone. Those are experiences that most of us go through in our lives. And trying to change who you are isn’t the answer. As Elise must learn, you should never hold back from what makes you, YOU. It’s an empowering message– and one I think we could all benefit from.
Guys, after reading This Song Will Save Your Life I am a bonafide FANGIRL of Leila Sales. I’m reading all her books from now on. She’s on my auto buy list. I’ve already pre-ordered a copy of This Song because I read a touring ARC and sadly had to send my copy on. I just can’t speak highly enough about it–I really think that it’s THE feel good book of the year. And you may think I’m prejudiced because of the subject matter, but I think This Song Will Save Your Life has that certain something that makes it insanely readable and a book that anyone would enjoy. So GO GIVE IT A SHOT! Pre-order this bad boy–it’s THAT good:)
Did you like the songs and artists that were mentioned in this review–how about that New Order song from the swoony Char/Elise scene? Well Leila Sales and Fierce Reads created a playlist on Spotify that has that song and nearly every other song mentioned in This Song Will Save Your Life as well. It is FABULOUS! I own a lot of the songs already but there were some that were new to me and have become favorites (“Young Folks” by Peter Bjorn and John…I’m thinking of YOU!)