Save Yourself

By Kelly Braffet

(Crown, $25, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Kelly Braffet probably does not want to be primarily identified this way, but she is indeed the daughter-in-law of a guy you may have heard of, named Stephen King. She is an accomplished novelist and is the wife of Owen King, an excellent fiction writer himself. And the sister-in-law of Joseph Hillstrom King, who writes sophisticated spooky novels under the name Joe Hill. And the daughter-in-law of Tabitha King, who has published many books. So the pedigree is impressive, but Braffet has earned praise on her own for her fine writing. Her other novels are “Josie and Jack” and “Last Seen Leaving.”

 What is this book about?

The sins of the fathers are visited with a vengeance on their offspring in this darkly moving novel. The focus is on Patrick Cusimano, who was living with his prickly brother, Mike, and alcoholic dad when it all went to hell. Dad, driving very drunk, hits-and-runs a little boy, who dies. (the image of what Patrick finds as evidence will greatly disturb you.) The shocked Cusimano brothers wait 19 hours to report the accident, a delay that turns the town against the entire family. Dad goes to jail, Patrick can’t do better than a crummy job in an even crummier convenience store and he’s half in love with Mike’s girlfriend, Caro, who lives with them and has her own issues, concerning her mentally disturbed mother. Enter two teenage sisters, Layla and Verna, who , having endured home-schooling by their ultra-religious parents and vicious bullying at school, are flirting heavily with the Goth lifestyle in high school and are hanging around with kids with a vampire fetish  and worse. Layla takes a shine to Patrick and things grow even more twisted. Can these damaged young people  get off the dangerous paths they are on and find some kind of peace?

Here’s what Braffet had to say to Owen King in an amusing online discussion they posted on “I’m glad you find Patrick likeable. I always have. He’s a smart guy who grew up in a family where being smart wasn’t particularly valued, so he ends up leading a not-particularly-smart life. When we meet him, he’s just starting to realize that. Which I think we generally find sympathetic: we don’t necessarily love losers, but we love losers who try to turn their lives around. He hasn’t turned things around yet; at the beginning of the book he still has many, many more terrible decisions to make, but he’s at least realized, in large part because of his father’s accident, that the road he’s traveling isn’t going anywhere. The question is whether or not he can switch directions. He has no idea where to start, even.

“Also, Patrick isn’t a callous person. He’s genuinely horrified by and ashamed of what his father has done. I tried to show that as soon as I could, so that readers knew out of the gate how damaged and vulnerable he was. It’s fair to accuse Patrick of making abysmally bad decisions, but I don’t think anyone could argue that he’s without a conscience.”

Why you’ll like it:

Braffet gets small-town life and its constricting, restricting ways, and she can draw characters sympathetically, even when they are not appealing people. She’s great with realistic dialogue, nailing what people say and what they are really thinking when they say it. There is much that is dark and disturbing in this book, but there is also empathy for its main character, Patrick, who is trying to build a new and better life despite the family history and enmity from the town, a place from which he must break free, emotionally and otherwise.

What others are saying:

From Booklist: “Braffet’s excruciatingly rendered characters and locomotive plotting make her a writer’s writer, though this novel shows all the signs of a popular breakthrough. Patrick, 26, lives with his older brother, Mike, and Mike’s girlfriend, Caro, in a shabby house creaking with the ghost of their father, who a year ago killed a child in a drunk-driving accident and made social pariahs of his sons. For Patrick, life is a nauseating blur of graveyard shifts, crap food, and frustrated lust for Caro. But this is a tale of two families: Layla, 17, has fully rebelled against her minister father and is now bringing younger sister Verna into the cult of goth outcasts led by faux-vampire, Charlie-Manson-in-training Justinian. Layla’s sudden relationship with Patrick puts the two plots on a collision course that is gonna end ugly—but also, in Braffet’s hands, beautifully. Sex is the driving force here—as power, as weapon, and as shield—and the sweaty mechanics of the few characters recall Tennessee Williams (and would look awfully good filmed in black and white). Perceptive, nervy, and with broad cross-genre appeal.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “A sharp portrait of five people damaged by their childhood elevates Braffet’s captivating, realistically creepy third novel, set in Ratchetsburg, Pa. Patrick Cusimano blames his brother, Mike, for the fact that their father, John, was sent to prison for the hit-and-run death of a child while in an alcoholic haze. Mike believes that if Patrick hadn’t called the police, their father would never have been arrested, despite the damaged, bloody car. The residents of Ratchetsburg also fault the brothers for waiting 19 hours before calling the police. Mike’s girlfriend, Caro, who fled from her bipolar mother when she was 16, lives with the brothers, but is increasingly attracted to Patrick. Meanwhile, sisters Layla and Verna Elshere are outcasts at their high school, ostracized because their father, Jeff, “a home church leader,” waged a high-profile campaign against sex education. Layla, who has retreated into the goth world, pulls Verna with her, along with Patrick, into an even darker, violent place. Braffet (Last Seen Leaving) uses graceful prose, astute dialogue, and vivid characters to carry the plot to an unexpected and believable finale.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Another darkly disturbing novel from Braffet, who specializes in exploring damaged people. Patrick Cusimano and his brother Mike live in the shadow of their father, who hit and killed a child while driving drunk. … Now, the Cusimano name is inextricably linked to the sadness and horror of their imprisoned father’s deed. Meanwhile, Layla and Verna Elshere have parent problems of their own. Their dad, a “church leader” who reluctantly allowed his teen daughters to attend public school, infamously took on the school board and got a popular teacher fired for instructing students on sex education. Now, his daughters have become pariahs at their high school and are targeted by kids so mean that their behavior is downright sociopathic. To make things worse, the teachers and administration turn a blind eye to the torture of the Elshere girls. Fearing that telling their parents will only make matters worse, the two remain quiet about the physical and psychological attacks and, instead, resort to hanging around with a group of misfit goth kids who drink one another’s blood and plot against the other, more popular kids. When Layla’s path crosses Patrick’s, she only adds to the confusion he feels about his role in life: He lives with a brother he loves and Caro, the daughter of a schizophrenic who is terrified that she, or any children she may have, will end up like her mother. Unable to move forward with his life, Patrick seems doomed to tread water, until a terrible confluence of events erupts, leaving no one untouched. Braffet writes beautifully, but the over-the-top human cruelty and depravity she incorporates in this story are both disturbing and creepy. A horrifying look at damaged people who owe all they are to their awful parents.”

When is it available?

Braffet’s book is awaiting borrowers at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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