The world of high school is so strange. As a teen, I often wondered how it was that some people seemed to navigate school without all of the anxiety and misery that I felt. As an adult, I have been witness to the complicated social structures that teens erect for themselves. Despite all these opportunities to observe high school, I still don't really understand it. When kids are mistreated or bullied or ignored, sometimes it's very clear why (they aren't conventionally attractive, they have interests that their classmates don't share, they don't understand the complicated rules of communicating with their peers, etc) but there still remain instances where the outcast is a pariah for reasons that aren't immediately clear to anyone. Probably, most especially, to that kid. This is the case with Elise Dembowski, the protagonist of Leila Sales's This Song Will Save Your Life. Elise is smart, hardworking, apparently cute, and certainly dedicated. Still, because she always was precocious, she finds that she is treated with either cruelty or apathy by her classmates.
Elise's story is frighteningly realistic: her peers made fun of her when they were younger, and the jokes just never stopped. She devotes herself to understanding how to become popular (just as, in the past, she devoted herself to learning to play an instrument or improving her vocabulary), but finds that no amount of study will yield positive results when it comes to social situations. When she realizes this, Elise makes a dangerous decision and, months later, still finds herself under the careful scrutiny of her divorced but extremely loving parents.
Because her waking moments are so well-observed, Elise begins to take long walks at night, after her family is asleep. At first, this is just a way to escape the watchful eyes that are always on her in the day. Until, that is, she accidentally meets Vicky and Pippa who introduce her to Start. Start is an underground nightclub and it is there that Elise discovers her newest, most passionate interest: becoming a DJ. With the help of Start's Thursday night DJ, Char, and a new sense of confidence, Elise explores what it means to become who you are, even if that means outshining the people you love.
While the ultimate scenario of this novel might sound a little far-fetched, it is the emotional realities of Elise's story that make this a worthwhile read. Elise is a character who deserves to find her crowd. As it happens, her crowd hangs out at an underground nightclub. For so many like her, in reality, the right crowd will be in a college art program or in a Dungeons and Dragons meet up or in the marching band. I found Elise's story both moving and delightful. She is more articulate than Holden Caulfield and certainly less miserable, but she bears a striking resemblance to that boy king of young adult literature and I think that teens who find they don't quite fit will feel as much kin to Elise as they always have to Holden.
I would recommend this novel to anyone who felt a bit misplaced in high school (or, perhaps, still feels a bit misplaced among their peers).
If you enjoyed any of these titles, you will probably enjoy This Song Will Save Your Life:
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan
An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman
Something else great about this title: the author includes a great "starter" playlist for any budding DJs (and many of these titles are name-checked in the narrative, too). Check out someone's great Spotify playlist: