Elise Dembowski doesn’t fit in. She spends the summer before her sophomore year of high school literally studying pop culture: the celebrities, the styles, the popular music. She hates it all, especially the saccharine, auto-tuned music. When it comes to music, Elise has standards. But she has come to the conclusion that, had she been more normal as a young child, she wouldn’t have become such an outsider. It may be too late to change her fate now, but she has to try. On the first day of school, she pulls on her skinny jeans and a tee shirt with a flattering neckline, slides a headband into her hair (the magazines say that headbands are in), and stands at the bus stop. Still, no one talks to her. But it’s early in the day, right? In THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE, author Leila Sales has invigorated the outsider-coming-of-age story with this quietly sad and occasionally triumphant novel that will draw you in close and keep you there.
"Sales revitalizes the story of the outsider and avoids many of the clichés that we expect. There are no easy answers for Elise."
If you are thinking that you have heard this story before, you’re wrong. You haven’t. Not like this. Elise doesn’t necessarily want to be friends with the cheerleaders and the jocks. She just wants to be friends with someone. Anyone, provided that they maybe share a few interests or something. But Elise’s creativity and intelligence unbridled by any social know-how has forever branded her as undesirable. Even the artsy, supposedly nice girls don’t really want to hang out with her, although a few at least act apologetic about it. This removes the nice security blanket that we like to hide behind when we consume media about the friendless outsider. “She’s not talking to the right people!” we shout at our pages and our TV screens. “That person she likes is clearly terrible! Why would anyone want to befriend/date/spare a glance at that person?”
As expected, Elise’s first day does not go as planned. Having failed in this last ditch sally at shedding her social toxicity, she turns to self-harm. In the days that follow, her divorced parents keep her home from school, send her to a psychologist and generally handle this as well as any parent could handle such a tragedy. But they can’t make friends for Elise. Therein lies another important aspect of this book; Elise struggles with the idea that telling an adult will fix the problem. Sure, it is definitely still worth it. Telling a trusted adult can absolutely decrease the bullying. The bullies will be punished and held accountable for their misdeeds. But reporting the bullies still won’t make Elise’s classmates see her any differently.
In order to escape her restlessness, Elise starts sneaking out of the house for late-night walks. One night, she happens to stumble upon two young women she has never met before. Vicky wears a polka dot dress and feathers in her hair. Pippa has a pixie cut and wears a leather jacket over a gold sequined dress. They initiate conversation and actually seem to like her. Plus, they seem to have certain vital things in common. When Elise tells them her name, Vicky asks, “Like the Cure song?” Elise dares to hope that she has found a kindred spirit.
Vicky and Pippa lead her to Start, an underground dance party filled with people who share Elise’s greatest passion: music. Even here, Sales avoids the trope of the easy fantasy world to which the protagonist seamlessly escapes her miserable existence. Elise’s first time at Start leaves her feeling alienated, and she leaves without saying goodbye to anyone. But the possibilities of Start compel her to seek it out again. Vicky and Pippa not only remember her, but call her out for not saying goodbye. They introduce her to the handsome and charismatic DJ named Char, which is short for “This Charming Man,” his DJ moniker.
When Char asks Elise to change to the next song for him, she finds that she loves the feeling of orchestrating the crowd’s reactions. For the first time in her life, she feels control over a social situation. When she plays the right song, everybody goes wild. She practices at home until Char offers her a guest DJ slot every Thursday night. Elise practices obsessively. She gets good. People like her. But will her talent as a DJ threaten the first real friendships she has ever had? Is there a way to transfer the self-confidence that Elise feels at Start to her life outside of the club? These questions weigh heavily on Elise’s mind as she navigates her new double life.
Sales revitalizes the story of the outsider and avoids many of the clichés that we expect. There are no easy answers for Elise. The tone is dry, matter-of-fact, often slyly funny and always disarmingly honest. Elise may cause you to grimace in recognition of shared private pain, but also to remember that odd girl in high school to whom you probably should have reached out, even though she didn’t necessarily make it easy for you. Several very different characters can act as simultaneous mirrors for the reader, and this makes this novel all the more powerful.
Reviewed by Caroline Osborn on September 27, 2013
This Song Will Save Your Life