All her life, Elise Dembowski has been an outsider. Starting a new school, she dreams of fitting in at last – but when her best attempts at popularity fail, she almost gives up. Then she stumbles upon a secret warehouse party. There, at night, Elise can be a different person, making real friends, falling in love for the first time, and finding her true passion – DJing.
But when her real and secret lives collide, she has to make a decision once and for all: just who is the real Elise?
When Elise Dembowski tries to change herself into a popular (or, okay, not so universally hated) girl, she does so the only way she knows how – research. She watches all the cool movies and TV shows, absorbs magazine articles and YouTube videos so that, by the time she returns to high school after break, she’s ready to make some actual friends and leave her former days as a despised geek behind. Except that it backfires.
What happens next is a total accident that sees Elise reaching out to a fellow classmate and rushed to the emergency room. Now she’s more of a pariah than ever before.
One night she sneaks out of home and goes for a walk, to try and get out of her own head. During her wandering she literally stumbles across Start – a secret warehouse party. Here she meets party girl Pippa and her best friend, rocker Vicky. She’s introduced to sweet doorman Mel and watches the super hot DJ, Char (short for ‘Charming’) do his thing in the booth.
After that first night, Elise is hooked. And when Char offers her a taste of the DJ booth, she makes it her mission to learn everything she can about vinyl control, beatmatch and learning to read a crowd and give them exactly what they want.
‘This Song Will Save Your Life’ is the new young adult novel from Leila Sales.
Okay. So. Full disclosure: I went into this book as one of those people who doesn’t have a very high opinion of DJs. I pretty much think they press play and know a lot of music, without necessarily having any musical talent … and I might have once said something to the effect of; “iPod shuffle has eliminated the need for DJs. Thank God.” But, y’know, that’s all on me. Clearly I have not had good experiences with DJs. Admittedly; I've never been a big partier and have not had the joy of attending a secret warehouse party like Elise does at Start. And, yes, I can appreciate that maybe the real DJ gods reside in places like New York and London and not so much Frankston, Victoria or even Melbourne (from what I've heard. Trust me).
But, still, those were my prejudices going into this book, and the ones I couldn’t shake even by the last page. Which probably explains why I've given this book 3-stars. Because I couldn’t really understand the transcended DJ music experience that so moves the protagonist. And when Char, Elise’s DJ mentor/guru, offers these sorts of insights, I pretty much just rolled my eyes and was all, “O, RLY??”
He rolled his eyes. ‘I guess the thing to know about DJing is that it’s not just playing one song after another song, like you were doing on Thursday. That’s good, and it takes practice to do that using the equipment. But that’s not enough, because at the end of the day, anyone can put together an iPod playlist and press play, but not just anyone can have my job.’
But the DJ stuff aside, ‘This Song Will Save Your Life’ did have some aspects that actually worked for me. A big focus of the book is on bullying – Elise is a young woman who has always been treated like dirt at school. She’s never had any friends, and every one of her classmates has treated her as an emotional punching bag for no other reason than she dresses a little differently and isn’t terribly impressed with popular culture.
Leila Sales did a good, if harrowing, job of presenting Elise’s life as hell-drudgery where she knows to expect the worst and be resigned in her role as outcast. The really heartbreaking sections are when Elise attempts to be ‘normal’ and fit in, only to be beaten back down by her bullying classmates.
With that in perspective, when she discovers Start it’s less about the music and more about her finding a tribe away from the hierarchal hell of high school. When she meets Pippa, Vicky, Char and Mel, Elise starts to realise that high school does have a finish line and it is possible to survive. In that respect, I liked what Start represented as a place where Elise could be herself and be celebrated for her difference;
The disco ball overhead scattered a million little lights over me, and I felt like I was sparkling from every inch of my body.
There’s a bit of romance presented in Elise being mentored by Char and this was where Leila Sales scored the biggest points for me. She didn’t write a twee love story. Instead, Char is a hard character to pin down – in one sense he’s a total jerk, in another he’s very sympathetic for being someone for whom things don’t come naturally and he has to battle the green-eyed monster. I loved how multifaceted he was, and that Sales didn’t write a run-of-the-mill romance for him and Elise.
‘It’s really easy. It’s already cued up. Just more this thing here, and it will transition into the next song. I’ll be back before you have to do anything else.’
Char laughed. ‘Don’t look so panicked, Elise.’
I looked out at the room of dancing, kissing, drinking people and asked, ‘But what if I screw up?’
Char placed his hands on my shoulders and looked into my eyes. ‘You won’t screw up. I believe in you.’
But, ultimately, the novel fell a bit flat for me. I felt like, much as Start was a great outlet for her, there was meatier story in Elise’s home and school life but I always felt like Sales wrote those as backdrops and never gave enough meaty exploration into those worlds. Case in point was when Elise’s relationship with her father became strained under the weight of her hiding her DJing sets … I was hoping Sales would stick with that for a little longer, pull it apart a bit more, but it ended up just being a crutch and neatly tied up.
And it was also hard to get into a book that had such big things to say about DJing when I was never terribly moved or convinced by that world. But, y’know, I've read some rave reviews of this book so maybe how much you love it comes down to whether or not you’ve had a truly moving musical experience with a stellar DJ … unlike me, when I've only been subjected to scratchy techno crap. Oh well.