Very rarely does a book impress me, satisfy me, and affect me emotionally as much as Katie Cotugno's debut novel, How to Love, did. This novel is a beautiful and achingly realistic portrayal of one couple's doomed teenage love affair, the aftermath, and their eventual coming to terms with one another.
HOW TO LOVE stands out among the crowd of other YA contemporary novels most notably due to Cotugno's lyrical, evocative writing. The author creates beautiful mental images throughout the novel by including details that add nuance and feeling to the story. Every detail or repeated image seems intentionally placed and well-considered. I would often stop reading to admire a passage and think to myself "THIS is what good writing looks and feels like." Another strength lies in the two main characters, Reena and Sawyer. Both are complex, flawed characters with multifaceted family members and friends surrounding them. While I often didn't like Reena or Sawyer, the writing allowed me to understand them and their actions and motivations.
In addition to her strong character development, Cotugno also does wonders with the plot and the structure of the novel. There is a careful interweaving of plot threads about family pressures, work, alcohol/drugs, religion, school, and friendship to make the characters' lives feel real and palpable. I especially liked the presence and impact of Reena's best friend, Allie, on the relationship between Sawyer and Reena. The plot of HOW TO LOVE never hurries nor dallies; the juxtaposition of the "before" and "after" chapters are perfectly aligned with mirrored events that follow one another naturally. When the book came to a close, the ending left me satisfied, even without answering every plot question directly.
Though this book was a perfect fit for me, there were a few phrases or sentence choices that threw me at times, and other readers may not be able to look past Reena's and Sawyer's flaws in order to find them sympathetic.
In all, though, HOW TO LOVE is the best young adult book that I've read in the past two years. I can't wait to see what moving, realistic, and emotionally arresting stories Cotugno writes in the future. I know that I'll reading every one of them.
Note: This review refers to an advance review copy.