Leila Sales gives us a coming of age story that’s equal parts heartbreak and hope, played to the beat of an epic soundtrack in her novel This Song Will Save your Life.
This Song Will Save Your Life is the story of Elise Dembowski. Elise is the daughter of a musician father and an activist mother (divorced). Elise has been told all her life that she’s special. And to her parents, she is special. Elise is smart, precious and determined. But to the world at large Elise is awkward, over intellectual, and just flat-out uncool. By the time Elise realizes that having an advanced vocabulary and liking obscure New Wave bands from the 80’s and shopping at thrift stores doesn’t win popularity contests, it’s too late. Elise has already been labeled as that weird girl you stay away from. After all, everyone knows that being cool is a zero-sum game.
Elise decides the summer before her sophomore year that she’s going to change herself. She will no longer be the unpopular, friendless loser. She is going to be one of the cool kids. And she tackles the problem of being unpopular the same way she tackles a complex trigonometry equation; she studies. Elise reads teen fashion magazines as if they were textbooks. Elise is so out of touch that she thinks popularity can be earned with hard work and determination. Needless to say Elise’s attempts at popularity are a complete and utter failure. Before the end of her first week at school, Elise is back to where she was before summer break. Friendless and alone.
Not being popular is something she’s used to, but really trying at something and failing miserably is so much worse. Elise has hit rock bottom socially and emotionally. Then late one night completely by chance, Elise stumbles upon an afterhours party. But this isn’t just any party, it’s START, a weekly dance party in an old warehouse. Elise meets two vibrant college girls, Victoria and Pippa, who invite her in. Elise figures she has nothing to lose so she follows and enters a whole other world. START is the world of club kids, artists, DJs, and eccentrics. It’s a world where all the things about Elise that don’t work in her boring high school life- her clothes, her books, her music- totally make sense. It’s a world where she meets the aptly named DJ This Charming Man, or Char for short. Char is cool and handsome and he appreciates Elise’s knowledge of music. He’s into her even though she just a 16 kid in converse and a flannel shirt. After Elise discovers START, her life changes. Everything is beautiful and vibrant and alive and perfect. For a while at least.
Char helps turn Elise’s love of music into something more extrovert. He teaches her how to be a DJ. Elise discovers that the solitary act of listening to music can be a shared experience. Soon she finds herself in the DJ booth behind the turntable with a hundred kids dancing to her music. The feeling is AMAZING. But while Elise can escape to the world of START once a week by sneaking out of her bedroom in the middle of the night, that doesn’t stop her real world from being as lonely and isolated as ever. And soon the world of START begins to lose some of its shine when in order to get there she must lie to the people she loves and betray their trust. Elise’s relationship with Char gets complicated when he goes from being her musical mentor to her….it’s complicated. Elise is finding out that when the party is over and the lights come on in the club, the glitter of nightlife is replaced by pale faces, empty beer bottles and lingering scent of disappointment. Elise must decide if she’s willing to face the harsh truth or if she prefers to stay in the dark.
This Song Will Save Your Life is Elise’s story, but it’s also my story. I was Elise. I was that girl, 16 clumsy and shy. Bullied and friendless and feeling like I would never fit in. I was alone with my turntable and my music. The Smith, The Cure, New Order, Bauhaus, Elvis Costello…the music was my EVERYTHING. And it was through music I ultimately found a community of kids just like me. I found my voice, interviewed bands, wrote for zines, started a radio show….. I won’t bore you with my life story, but let’s just say that I had my own version of START, my own hellish high school experience, and my own Char (or two). A lot of us do. And this is what is so special about This Song Will Save Your Life. We’ve all felt like Elise at some point but through it all, there is always the music. And yes, it can save your life. Again, and again.
P.S. The enhanced version of this book comes with an amazing playlist by author Leila Sales, who coincidentally might be my musical twin. If you are unfamiliar with the bands and songs in This Song Will Save Your Life, do yourself a favor and listen to ALL of them. This playlist made me want to dance around the house while singing loudly into my hairbrush.
START is not a real club, but when I was Elise’s age my version of START was Salad Days in Ft. Myers, Florida and Monday nights at The Castle in Tampa, Florida. Here is my own This Song Will Save Your Life playlist inspired by all my late nights on the dancefloor. Happy listening.
Siouxsie and the Banshees- Cities in Dust
The Smith- The Boy with a Thorn in his Side
Elvis Costello- Accidents Will Happen
The Cure- A Night Like This
New Order- Age of Consent
Sugar Cubes- Birthday
Depeche Mode- Never Let Me Down
Sisters of Mercy- Marian
Psychedelic Furs- Love My Way
Bryan Ferry- Slave to Love
Peter Murphy- Scarlet Thing In You
Tom Tom Club- Genius of Love
Roxy Music- Love is the Drug
Joy Division- Radio
The Blow Monkeys- Digging your Scene
Duran Duran- The Chauffeur
The Church- Under the Milky Way
The Jam- That’s Entertainment
Peter Murphy- Cuts you Up
Echo & The Bunnymen- Killing Moon
The Smiths- Stop Me If you Think You’ve Heard This One Before