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Onyx reviews: Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet

The two families featured in Kelly Braffet's exquisitely bleak and painfully perceptive third novel couldn't be more different, although both are pariahs in Ratchetsburg, PA.

Patrick Cusimano and his older brother Mike are living in their father's house while the old man is doing time for killing a young boy while driving drunk. The sins of the father are visited upon the sons. Because Mike and Patrick waited nearly a day before calling the police, people believe they spent the intervening time trying to cover up the crime. For his part, Mike thinks their father might have gotten away with it if Patrick hadn't turned him in. Their father's incarceration isn't the sum total of their problems, either. The boy's family is considering suing them.

After public opinion turned against the brothers, Patrick, who is twenty-six, quit his job at a warehouse and now works the midnight shift at a convenience store for minimum wage. Most of his friends abandoned him after his father's scandal. Now he's simply passing time, lacking drive or ambition. After he hits a deer with his car—he was sober but the similarity to what his father did unnerves him—he loses his "drive" literally. He refuses to touch his car any more and walks to and from work.

Mike is the main breadwinner in the family. His girlfriend, Caro, a waitress, lives with them, and her presence causes tension between the brothers. Caro left home at sixteen to escape her OCD/bipolar mother's crazy behavior, some of which has left an indelible imprint on her.

The Elshere sisters, Layla and Verna, are outcasts because their father, an evangelist preacher, got a high school biology teacher fired for teaching classes on sex education. At first Layla was her father's mouthpiece on the issue, but she became the focus of a bullying campaign that hit its nadir when some girls set her hair on fire. The evidence of the outcome of the controversy lies before the students every day: a chunk of pages have been ripped from their textbooks. Even their teachers resent the sisters for the loss of a colleague.

The Elsheres found religion later in life. Seventeen year old Layla, named for the Clapton song, was born before they were saved. She's the child of sin, whereas Verna, born after their salvation, is the child of God. Layla rebels against oppressive parents and school bullying by becoming goth. She begrudgingly stuffs information packets for her father's ministry, a condition of a contract with her parents that got her a new car. Verna, on the other hand, is still obedient and well-behaved, often acting as a peace-keeper between her sister and parents.

Layla used to baby-sit Ryan Czerpak, the dead boy. In the book's opening pages, she recognizes Patrick and strikes up a conversation with him at the convenience store. She is persistent, goading him into waking up and doing something, until they form an uneasy friendship. Though she's too young for him (he's nine years older), she seems fascinated by him. He's a wounded soul, just like she is. She thinks they can reinvent themselves and become new people. She seems strong, so it's easy to forget how young she is and how susceptible to the influence of an older boy named Justinian, who has a sadistic streak and leads a pack of youths whose common thread is pain. Patrick seems like a way out of a life that is spiraling out of control.

Braffet makes an interesting choice by having Verna be the second narrator instead of Layla. Verna is new to high school, but quickly finds herself in her sister's shadow. Her classmates have a ready supply of taunts and torments to bestow upon her because they've already used most of them on Layla, who was once a Jesus freak and is now a vampire freak. She acquires a loathsome nickname: Venereal. If Layla is vulnerable to Justinian's manipulations, Verna is doubly so. She is wary of everyone, even a classmate—a newcomer to town—who seems like he might become a friend, but gravitates toward Justinian's accepting but corrupting cult-like gang.

Save Yourself is reminiscent of One on One by Tabitha King, a book of teenage angst where two outcasts find comfort and strength with each other. The main difference is that Patrick isn't a teenager, which makes his developing relationship with Layla taboo. Layla is unpredictable and edgy, dragging Patrick from his self-imposed exile from the world, sometimes kicking and screaming.

None of the characters are happy at the beginning of Save Yourself, and things have gotten worse for some by the end. However, there is change and the possibility of a somewhat brighter future for at least some of them. Braffet has an eye and an ear for the lives of troubled characters and readers will be engrossed by the situations they confront. The five young men and women don't all make wise decisions, but they're all trying to be good people.

As for the book's title, the lyrics of a song of the same name by Stabbing Westward are as apropos as anything: I cannot save you...I can't even save myself.

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