Release Date: October 1, 2013
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins)
Before: Reena Montero has loved Sawyer LeGrande for as long as she can remember: as natural as breathing, as endless as time. But he’s never seemed to notice that Reena even exists…until one day, impossibly, he does. Reena and Sawyer fall in messy, complicated love. But then Sawyer disappears from their humid Florida town 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, Hannah. Reena’s gotten used to being without Sawyer, and she’s finally getting the hang of this strange, unexpected life. But just as swiftly and suddenly as he disappeared, Sawyer turns up again. Reena doesn’t want anything to do with him, though she’d be lying if she said Sawyer’s being back wasn’t stirring something in her. After everything that’s happened, can Reena really let herself love Sawyer LeGrande again?
In this breathtaking debut, Katie Cotugno weaves together the story of one couple falling in love—twice.
How to Love was a touching and refreshing story, alternating between two equally riveting perspectives. It’s definitely my favorite of the year so far and I can already tell that it’ll make my Best of 2014 list when the end of the year rolls around. I loved this book!
It starts off when Reena casually runs into Sawyer at the store. He says hi, acts exactly the same, like it’s nothing that he’s back. And inside, Reena is flipped upside down. Reena’s home now, with a baby daughter who’s her entire world and an education from the community college, some close friends and a waitressing job at her father’s restaurant, a boyfriend. In other words, she’s completely different from the girl Sawyer left years earlier.
He left her pregnant. Falling in love with him at sixteen was vulnerable, sweet, an introduction to an entire new chapter to her life but it had its messy moments and the dark underbelly to Sawyer’s magnetism. But now that Sawyer’s back, her past and her current selves combine. The only questions are: who will she be now that he’s back? And who, exactly, is worth a second chance?
A lot of books don’t really deal with the after. Books like How to Save a Life by Sarah Zarr and Someone Like You by Sarah Dessen lead up to the climax of the teen giving birth. Still excellent books, but How to Love was a refreshing take on parenthood that led to some interesting discussions and gripping pacing.
Reena was a really intriguing character – I felt like I connected with her a lot. She had this insatiable want to travel and explore but was also happy rooted in her hometown. It was nice because that’s really nice to find in a character: somebody who’s content with the way their life goes but would also welcome a change if necessary. She had an old soul but was still excited and changed by the everyday trials of being a teenager. She wasn’t one for extremes: she was fluid, thoughtful, reserved but still relatable and made an impression on me.
Reena was largely defined by her daughter. While at the core, she remained the first person before and after her pregnancy, Hannah was a definite blessing to her that challenged her and made her find her true self. The book didn’t condone teen pregnancy in the least – we had a distinct sense of the struggles and regrets that Reena had to carry around with her – but it also showed a tender side to the mother-daughter relationship. The book didn’t treat Hannah as “the baby” or a burden but a real person with a personality that could influence Reena and remind her of her past and future. Despite Hannah being a supporting character, I liked her a lot, with her feistiness and obvious love for her mother in the smallest actions.
Sawyer was kind of a jerk. I wasn’t sure how I felt about him. Despite the charming allure he exhibited in the “before” sections of the book, knowing that he ran out on Reena for selfish reasons and seeing how much he stayed the same really alienated me towards him. He had his good moments and his bad, a mercurial mix between the kid and adult that he was supposed to become. I liked him at the beginning of the book because he was intelligent enough to be fascinating in his actions towards Reena. And yet, the conflict worked. He was a more unlikable character but it felt necessary towards the book and towards Reena. Seeing Reena mature and Sawyer come back into her life at that point, really showed the difference between the two and the change in their relationship.
Their relationship had its ups and downs. You could really see the attraction, and the magnetism that led Reena to be so unsure by finding Sawyer in her life again. It was the conflict between the girl who Reena used to be and the person she steadily became.
Supporting characters led to their own challenges. Katie Cotugno led Reena to really tested and fascinating relationships with other characters: her current boyfriend Adam, his sister and her best friend Shelby, her stepmother Soledad, her brother, her dad.
The absorbing nature of the writing style paralleled with the vivid details really reminded me of The Probability of Miracles by Wendy Wunder. It had a engaging tense and sentence structure that made it flow very nicely and smoothly. It wasn’t a quick read but it didn’t drag on – it was compelling and fresh enough to make me never want to put it down. It’s definitely a book that I regret finishing because I’d love to read it again for the first time. A few minutes after I finished it, I had already gushed about and lent it to somebody else to read.
A really nice detail about How to Love was that Reena’s family was Catholic. And yet, Katie Cotugno didn’t automatically jump to the annoying conclusion that her family hated her. They had tense moments that escalated at the end of the book and really was explored in how the baby affected the family dynamic. Her family was definitely worried about Reena and disappointed in the future she could have had, but they did support her in their own way. Reena went to church with Hannah and thought about God and as a Christian, I enjoyed how Cotugno didn’t automatically jump to shaming Reena or assuming that the family would either hate her or assuming that Reena herself wasn’t a strong Christian. It was a nice change from the normal trope, one that really helped flesh out the relationships.
A large part of the book was bittersweet. The barriers that Reena faced weren’t great and they weren’t awful either: there were mixtures of happiness and sadness throughout. The ending was interesting, to say the least, and led me biting back tears but also loving it at the same time.
This book was graceful. It was invigorating, tender, lovely. I could talk about this book for hours on end, about the enthralling characters, the particular concepts that Reena introduced about her newfound life, the relationships that made me question my own first instincts. This is one that I highly recommend and will definitely reread in the years to come.
Possible book club questions:
Do you think this book portrays teenage pregnancy in a positive or negative light? Why or why not?
How do you think Sawyer’s changed from the boy he was in the “Before” segment? Do you think he deserves a second chance?
How is Katie Cotugno’s portrayal of Hannah different from other YA books dealing with teenage parents?
How is Reena and Sawyer’s relationship different in the “Before” and “After” segments?
Do you agree with the way Reena’s family handled the situation?
Do you like the ending? Why or why not? Do you think it’s realistic?