Elise Dembowski, the protagonist of Leila Sales' new novel, "This Song Will Save Your Life," is the kind of clueless loser who'll make you cringe—and depending upon your personal high school history, it might be with recognition. Sneered at, bullied and relentlessly rejected, Elise is a social pariah thanks to having committed teen life's one unforgivable sin: wanting people to like her.
But when this story begins, Elise is sure that she's got it all figured out. All this time, she's been targeted for sticking out; clearly, what she needs is to reject her uniqueness and fit in, right? [Ed note: Ugh, no, wrong. SO wrong. But there's nothing we can do to stop her.] Determined to make her sophomore year the one in which she's finally be accepted, Elise studies up on popular culture, buys all the right clothes and stows the physical evidence of her former life as a weirdo outlier in an industrial-strength trash bag.
Which means that when her plan crashes, burns and explodes into itty-bitty humiliating little pieces for good measure, she's left with nothing—not even herself.
"This Song Will Save Your Life" is Elise's journey from rock bottom to self-discovery, courtesy of an underground dance club, a new-found talent for DJing and a group of lively and loving friends who aren't perfect, and aren't popular, but have found the secret to happiness in being completely, utterly and unabashedly themselves. The book is funny, insightful and captures with unflinching authenticity the experience of a bullied kid; Sales gets everything right as she shows how even a smart, self-aware girl with involved parents and a bright future can end up crushed by the hopelessness and helplessness of being victimized. And although there's a romantic subplot that's just the right amounts of fun and titillating, it's also refreshingly underwrought: Elise is gratefully savvy from the get-go about the fact that her fling, a fellow DJ, is a sexy but irredeemable douchebag, and the love story is never the main event. This is one YA heroine who'd rather find herself than find romance, and it's the music, not the man, that shows her the way.
"This Song Will Save Your Life" is out September 17.