This is going to be a hard review to write, and that's not because Kelly Braffet's Save Yourself is bad -- quite the opposite, in fact. It's so good that I feel like any attempt on my part to sum up the book and talk about the feelings it stirred within me would do nothing but undermine the story and the characters and the struggles they go through. Still, I'll try to press on but it's gonna be a short one -- I'll give myself just enough rope to hang myself with, nothing more and nothing less.
Save Yourself opens on a note of despair and doesn't get much more optimistic from there. Mike and Patrick, brothers in equally menial and mindless jobs, are the sons of a drunkard who hit and killed a local kid and is now doing time in jail. For this, they are social pariahs and just try to do their best to get through each day. They live together in their parents' home (side-note: their mother passes away due to cancer a year before the story's happenings) with Mike's girlfriend, Caro, making ends meet and not much more. They are living, but not existing. Mike is content with this, but Patrick isn't. He longs for more, but he can't crawl out from under the long shadow his father's reputation has cast. To make matters worse, he and Caro have drunken sex early on in the novel while Mike is away, and things only get more depressing and awkward from there.
In another part of town, a teen-aged girl named Layla and her group of friends participate in ritualistic activities (not wanting to go into spoiler city here) and her younger sister, Verna, is just trying to get by in her first year of high school. These girls are the daughters of extremely conservative evangelists who became well-known after they caused a big stink because the high school was teaching sex education. It became a big thing because that's how small towns work -- small things turn into big things. For this, Verna is mercilessly bullied by classmates to the point that I felt physically sick at times while reading what she had to go through.
These two stories eventually merge into one, leading to a thrilling (and very rushed) climax. It's truly exciting to see the way Braffet sets her characters up only to knock each other down . . . and when they get up again, you hope they'll stay up but deep in your heart you know they won't. Ah, tragedy.
Perhaps Braffet's biggest strength here is her character work. This woman is only three novels into her career, but she writes people like she's been doing it for at least a decade. Characters that should have been paper-thin cliches, such as Layla's gothic friends or the girls' parents, come off as totally believable and real -- like people you'd live next door to or meet on the street. That's a major sign of a talented author -- making the reader genuinely care about the people on the page. Oh boy, does Kelly Braffet ever accomplish that! As I said, at times I felt physically sick when reading about Verna being bullied. I winced when she cut off and dyed her hair to fit in with her older sister's group of friends. I felt for Mike, suspecting that Caro was cheating on him but not realizing it was with his own brother. I could see myself as Patrick, Layla, Caro, Justinian, all of them. Braffet made me believe in these characters so deeply that I became them.
So, why doesn't this novel earn 5 stars from me? Well, as I mentioned earlier, the climax and resolution felt way too rushed for me. It seems like Braffet was ready to finish the novel and put it aside, which is a real shame -- she has created some outstanding characters and situations here, and could have gotten even more mileage out of 'em. Still, I suppose it's better to be left wanting more than wishing the author had chopped off fifty or a hundred pages. What we're left with is a novel that's just over 300 pages and touches on every genre from comedy to horror to young adult fiction. Not bad, that.
In conclusion: READ THIS BOOK. You won't regret it.