Title: How to Love
Author: Katie Cotugno
Publication Date: October 1, 2013
Recipe Variables: sex, drug use, drinking, profanity
Before: Reena Montero has loved Sawyer LeGrande for as long as she can remember. But he’s never noticed that Reena even exists . . . until one day, impossibly, he does. Reena and Sawyer fall in messy, complicated love. But then Sawyer disappears 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. Reena’s gotten used to life without Sawyer, but just as suddenly as he disappeared, he turns up again. Reena wants nothing to do with him, though she’d be lying if she said his being back wasn’t stirring something in her.
After everything that’s happened, can Reena really let herself love Sawyer LeGrande again?
We all have our mainstays: Hershey bars, for instance. One can’t go wrong with the simplicity of straight-forward milk chocolate. That’s what I was shopping for when I came across How to Love by Katie Cotuguo. The teens I know gobble up titles like 13 Reasons Why, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and 2012’s smash, The Fault in Our Stars. This chick is happy to add another title to the nest of what I like to term freakin’ fantastic “realistic” young adult lit.
One of my favorite things about the story is the main character, Serena, nicknamed “Reena”, especially since the story is told from her point of view. She is the quintessential Catholic goodie-girl that mixes it up with a bad boy and ends up pregnant; her cliché life ends there, however. Her ability to soldier on becomes a study of courage after having her dreams blow up in her face. It’s the way those dreams were painstakingly built in the first place that mesmorize the reader. She wants to become a travel writer, so Reena hangs posters of exotic locations all over her room, she buys travel guides to distant lands, and she obsesses over travel books. She wants out, but her choices force her to stay in.
There are too many recipe variables to list that would set a conservative community’s cook stove on fire. There is the sex, profanity, drinking, drug abuse, and ultimately, teen pregnancy. Considering the landscape of the lives of teenagers, these are everyday dealings, so take them as you will. What keeps this title from securing the ever-elusive five square rating are a smattering of tired young adult formulas. There’s the tried-and-true love triangle between Reena, Sawyer, and Aaron. The good news is that it isn’t overdone, there isn’t a hideously drawn-out power struggle, and the obvious shipper team wins. The other yawner lives in Sawyer’s chosen profession. Musician? DING! You win the bonus prize! Really? Does every skinny-jean wearing recovering addict have to be a musician? I’ll take a construction worker or firefighting intern for $100, please. Thankfully, those tired elements are off-set by the mystery surrounding the night that Reena loses her bestie and hooks up with Sawyer for the first time. The narrative structure bounces back and forth between the present and the past, keeping the ambiguous nature of that night threaded through the entire novel, creating an explosive lynch-pin at the end.
The novel’s message, delivered through Reena’s journey, is that you can still reach your destination—it just might take some extra time to get there. And that’s always something worth holding out for when you are searching for a mainstay in your cupboards.