This review and others are posted at Inspiring Insomnia.
Elise was an uncool outcast in her school by the fourth grade. And she knew it. As time went by, she feels more and more isolated. After her freshman year, she decides to make a change. She wasn't going to strive to be the most popular girl in school, but she "just needed to not be me anymore." How was she going to accomplish this? By spending the summer studying pop culture and buying clothes deemed fashionable. Yeah, probably not the best idea, and Elise quickly learns that it wasn't enough.
She stays up late and deprives herself of sleep to numb herself to the pains of high school. She wanders around her city until the sun rises. On one of these walks, she discovers a club called Start. No one knows her, and she has an opportunity to reinvent herself. She makes some friends, meets a guy, and discovers that she has a talent for DJ'ing. As she gains confidence, the bullying she's subjected to in school becomes less overwhelming.
I read this book and sat down to write the review in the evening of the same day that I caught the end of the 80's movie, Can't Buy Me Love, starring Patrick Dempsey. For those who only know Dempsey from his "McDreamy" role on Grey's Anatomy, you might be surprised to know that in his younger years, he was kind of geeky-looking. He's bullied in the film, pays a beautiful cheerleader to date him, and magically becomes cool. Near the end, the geeks and the jocks solve all their differences and come together in an incredibly cheesy moment in the cafeteria, complete with the slow clap leading to raucous cheers of students and teachers. OK, maybe it's kind of cute, but for anyone who has attended high school, it's probably not close to reality.
Another common resolution in films and books is the "bully comeuppance" where the victim takes revenge on the bully, and the bully is made to look ridiculous or stupid. This may be a tad more realistic, but unfortunately, I suspect the most common outcome for bullies, at least while they're in high school, is complete and willing ignorance of the awfulness of their behavior.
That's the approach that Sales takes, and I appreciate her for it. As Elise gains more confidence, we see the bullies lose their power over her, because a bully likes nothing more than someone they view as easy prey. Once that is taken away from them, they're exposed as weak and pathetic. But they don't grow, and they don't change, and they certainly don't apologize. How often, in real life, do bullies suddenly see the errors of their ways and have a drastic personality change? Not very often, I suspect.
When I hear of kids who are bullying victims, my first instinct is to wish that I could hug them and comfort them and tell them that everything will be OK. But Elise is probably not the type who would welcome that sort of comfort. Also, there were times I wasn't sure that I even wanted to hug her. While she is being bullied by her classmates, it was impossible not to notice that she treats the only two girls who were kind to her with little more than disdain. While Elsie is not overtly cruel, because we're inside her head, we know the unkind thoughts that she has towards the girls. And she occasionally makes cutting comments that seem to go right over the girls' heads. Elise's bad behavior is not an excuse for the way she was treated by the school bullies, but I wondered if the superior attitude she sometimes shows is part of what made her a target.
There were times I had to stop myself from thinking, "Wait a minute, Elise seems a little TOO cool. Why would she be victimized by bullies?" Kids are bullied for being too fat, too skinny, too short, too tall, too smart, too dumb, too gay, too weird, too clumsy, or too anything that falls outside of some arbitrary norm. Elise's "crime" was a social awkwardness that she felt made her weird to others.
Notice the title of the book is not This GUY Will Save Your Life. Elise does get involved with a guy who works at the club, but this is nowhere near the typical YA romance. Some people will love this, and others may hate it. I loved it. It feels very true to life, complete with all the passion, awkwardness, excitement, and confidence-crushing that comes with a first love. And it didn't save her life. Elise's passion for music is what saves her life, and she didn't need anyone's help for that.