Review: How to Love by Katie Cotugno

Rating: 4 stars
Pub Date: October 1, 2013
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (Harper Collins imprint)
Genre: young adult/new adult contemporary romance
Format/Source: DRC, Edelweiss
Status: standalone

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 is not what I expected. I enjoyed it, yes, but I don't have the super strong feelings about it that both the novel's champions and opposition seem to have. This is probably the most difficult review I've written, at least in a while, because for once, I have no idea what I'm feeling about How to Love and therefore have no idea how to say it. Please bear with me as I try to unmuddle my thoughts.

I'll start with Reena, our protagonist. Reena alternates from naive/innocent young girl with a crush to slightly (more than slightly, actually) bitter and closed off teen mom with serious abandonment issues. And really, who can blame her? The nature of the dual timelines in How to Love creates this weird paradox where the reader knows the future....but at the same time, they don't. See, in the very first chapter, we witness Reena and Sawyer's first meeting after he has been away. All we know is that he has been gone and that they have a child together. Everything else is up in the air. So I think it's definitely safe to say that Reena is totally allowed to be bitter and distrustful of the people in her life. And yet, I'm so sad for her, not because of Hannah, but because if you're constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, you're going to miss out on being in the moment. You will always be removed. I think that's Sawyer's point as we get further into the story: that Reena never allows herself to just be, both before and after. She keeps things close and doesn't let others see how deeply they affect her, one way or another. It does require a certain amount of vulnerability, and that is something Reena fights to keep hidden.

Meanwhile Sawyer before is a vibrant, charaismatic young man. He's tempting and alluring, brightly burning, even during his darker moments. Sawyer has one of those magnetic personalities that draws people in no matter what. Sawyer after is more put together, less of a hot mess. He's still magnetic, but he's learned how to control himself. Sawyer is definitely the more obviously vulnerable of the two, although it is unknown to reader for the majority of the book why exactly that is.

So you have these two beautiful, broken people shouldering massive amounts of grief and guilt over all the events in their lives for which they hold themselves responsible. Their first love story is explosive, world-shaking. They're pretty destructive with one another as Sawyer drags Reena into his gritty life and Reena messes with Sawyer's emotions (we don't find this out until later, though, and Sawyer has some things to say about it). The second time around, they can't help but move toward each other, but it's gentler, smoother. They've both matured a lot, and they know themselves better, which allows them to decide once and for all, what they want and how to get it.

I think the dual timeline is definitely what sets How to Love apart. If I read this novel with a straight-forward timeline, I don't think I'd find it very special. Reena and Sawyer's growth would not mean as much. With the flipping of the scenes, though, it's obvious and easy to see how each part of the past broke them over time and created the new Sawyer and Reena. The duality also creates a pretty intriguing mystery. What exactly happened to Sawyer? Why did he leave? What part did he play in Allie's death? What happened to Reena and her dad? So many questions in both stories, and they all get answered. Although if I were Reena, I think I would have made some different choices, but the ending is very much a complete resolution and a very natural and authentic resolution at that. It feels right for the characters. Katie Cotugno definitely doesn't leave the story unfinished, and I applaud her for that. The duality is fresh and interesting, but I'm sure it was a million times harder to write that nonlinear timeline and still hit all the major points by the conclusion.

I think this novel is hard to review for the fact that I don't want to give too much away, and yet it feels like there's not a lot in the novel to giveaway. That sounds weird, I know. I'll say that this is one where you'll have to read it and judge for yourself because How to Love appears to be quite the polarizing novel. I will say again that I enjoyed it. It's unique. It's realistic. It's bold. Katie Cotugno was not afraid to write the hard stuff. The after-the-first-kiss. The what-happens-next. Jane Austen was always critiqued about the fact that she wrote up to the marriage but never after, possibly because she never married herself or maybe because that was her version of closing the door. Katie Cotugno throws open that door, but not on the sexy times that young adult authors occasionally gloss over. She throws open the door on the actual work that you have to do in a relationship. Alessandra Balzer, the editor of How to Love, calls it a "messy, unpredictable, thrilling love," and I'd say that's an assessment I agree with. So if you're willing, as a reader, to put aside any fanciful hopes of a tame young adult romance and open yourself up to a grittier romantic realism, I recommend this book. If you're not, then it's probably not for you, and that's okay.

Book Links:

About the Author:
Katie Cotugno went to Catholic school for thirteen years which makes her, as an adult, both extremely superstitious and prone to crushes on boys wearing blazers. She routinely finds herself talking about the romantic endeavors of characters on TV shows as if they actually exist in the world.

Katie is a Pushcart Prize nominee whose work has appeared in The Broadkill Review, The Apalachee Review, and Argestes, as well as on Her first novel, HOW TO LOVE, is due out from Balzer + Bray on October 1st, 2013.

The great loves of Katie's life include child's pose, her little sister, and mozzarella and honey sandwiches. She lives in Boston (and in sin) with her boyfriend, Tom.

Author Links:


  1. I'm really interested to read this. Many people do gloss over the "deep"/adult/relationship stuff so it might be nice to actually read a book where that doesn't really happen.

    1. I'd say one of the best aspects of this book really is its intense realism. Usually books are about people getting together, and this is too, a little bit, but mostly it focuses on the trying to stay together, and I really like that.

  2. This book sounds so good and your review has me so excited to pick it up! I'm glad you enjoyed it even if you had a few qualms here and there. :D

    1. I know it sounds like I had a lot of problems with this, but mostly I was just unsure about how to phrase things. It really is enjoyable!

  3. The book sounds a bit interesting, but im not really all for it for books where the main character has a past.

    1. I understand. How to Love is all about past events. I mean, literally, half of the book is in the past.

  4. I have wanted to read this for so long! The cover really appeals to me for some reason and I like the synopsis. Great review! Just makes me want to read it even more :)

  5. I keep seeing the cover for this everywhere. You've convinced me that I need to pick up a copy.