Before: Reena Montero has loved Sawyer LeGrande for as long as she can remember: as natural as breathing, as endless as time. But he’s never seemed to notice that Reena even exists…until one day, impossibly, he does. Reena and Sawyer fall in messy, complicated love. But then Sawyer disappears from their humid Florida town 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, Hannah. Reena’s gotten used to being without Sawyer, and she’s finally getting the hang of this strange, unexpected life. But just as swiftly and suddenly as he disappeared, Sawyer turns up again. Reena doesn’t want anything to do with him, though she’d be lying if she said Sawyer’s being back wasn’t stirring something in her. After everything that’s happened, can Reena really let herself love Sawyer LeGrande again?
Tell Me More: A quick scan of romance shelves in a bookstore can yield dozens of stories about second chances and new beginnings in relationships. Most of the protagonists are older, wiser, but there’s just something about that long-lost love interest that draws them back in, and the reader is left satisfied that this time, it will work out for the best. How to Loveis a story that uses these tropes in a YA package, but despite Cotugno’s gorgeous writing style, it is more uncomfortable than effective.
Before anyone draws the assumption that I hated the book, I will say that I adored Reena. She is vibrant and bright, and her voice is one of the clearest I’ve encountered in over a decade of reading YA. She is as memorable as Sarah Dessen’s heroines, in particular Colie from Keeping the Moon. The scenes with her family were some of my favourite in the entire book, and I loved the way they interacted so honestly with each other. I find that I look for those familiar connections more often in the YA books I pick up, and if they aren’t there, I need to be able to see where and why they fell apart in the way the character is written. Cotugno accomplishes this beautifully.
Where the book failed, however, is in the relationship between Reena and Sawyer, and I lay all the blame on Sawyer’s characterization. I am not a stranger to bad-boy romances, though I will admit to having less patience for them as I’ve grown up, which has probably played a part in colouring my opinion of Sawyer. In the “before,” I can understand the appeal–Sawyer is an enigma, something Reena can’t pick apart and analyze. I simply don’t see why Reena was drawn to him in the “after.”
Yes, their child could benefit from having both parents around as opposed to just one. Yes, Sawyer might have changed, and yes, Reena deserves love. But is Sawyer the kind of love that Reena deserves? I suppose at the end of it all, I didn’t see a Sawyer that could be redeemed for what he did, and I wasn’t sold on the way Reena forgave him. You can love someone and still realize that your relationship with them was and is unhealthy and abusive. Forgiveness also has to be earned, and it requires work, neither of which I saw in How to Love I can only hope that the happiness Reena deserves isn’t as difficult to keep this time around.
The Final Say: My disappointment in the overall romantic plot of How to Love is only matched by my love for its main character, but I remain eager to see where Katie Cotugno’s literary talents takes her next.
Katie Cotugno went to Catholic school for thirteen years which makes her, as an adult, both extremely superstitious and prone to crushes on boys wearing blazers. She routinely finds herself talking about the romantic endeavors of characters on TV shows as if they actually exist in the world.
Katie is a Pushcart Prize nominee whose work has appeared in The Broadkill Review, The Apalachee Review, and Argestes, as well as on Nerve.com.