The novel opens with an After chapter describing Reena's unexpected meeting with her ex-boyfriend, twenty year old, Sawyer LeGrande, in a 7-Eleven store. Sawyer left town at the time Reena learned she was pregnant with their child and she hasn't seen him in two years.
Upon his return, Sawyer has learned that he has a daughter and now seems intent upon re-establishing a relationship with Reena. But Reena is dating Aaron, her best friend, Shelby's, brother. Aaron who works as a treats Reena very well. Reena now lives with her daughter, Hannah, and her father and stepmother, Soledad. Reena still works in the family restaurant while taking classes at Broward College.
In the Before chapters, the back story which takes place two years earlier, of Reena and Sawyer, is presented. Reena is sixteen years old and with her good marks in school has plans for her life. Those plans entail getting out of town, traveling and writing about the world. To achieve this goal she intends to study creative nonfiction at Northwestern.
Reena and Sawyer's fathers have known each other since childhood and have owned a restaurant, Antonia's, together for the past 10 years. Sawyer's parents, Roger and Lydia introduced Reena's parents to one another in college. Reena's mom passed away when she was four years old and Soledad was hired by Lydia to help the grieving family after her death. Eventually Soledad and Reena's father got married.
Reena is somewhat of a loner in high school, where she feels she doesn't fit in. She has trouble letting people get close to her emotionally. Her best friend, Allie Ballard, a party girl who frequently shoplifts has always been there to help Reena socially. When Allie begins dating Sawyer, Reena is shocked because she has always had a crush on Sawyer for as long as she can remember. But Reena has never told Allie how she felt about Sawyer and now it feels impossible to do so.
While Allie and Sawyer are dating, Allie and Reena begin to drift apart. Reena who is in grade ten has almost no friends, feels unmoored and becomes socially isolated. At a party, Allie tries to tell Reena that she has done her a favour by dating Sawyer because he's not who they thought he was. But Reena misses this message when Allie tells her that they have been intimate. She is utterly devastated.
One night Sawyer shows up asking Reena to "hang out" with him. Reena agrees but lies to her father who doesn't seem to like Sawyer much. Their unofficial date ends with them learning that Allie has been in a terrible car accident. With Allie's death, Sawyer disappears over the summer but continues to get into trouble, getting arrested and blowing off going to college in September. Sawyer's parents force him to move out of the house and he flops at a house with a few drug addicts.
Reena and Sawyer begin to date in the fall and soon are involved in a sexual relationship. As Reena begins to fall for Sawyer, her father recognizes what is going on and attempts to warn her that he knows the real Sawyer LeGrande. But for Reena, Sawyer is like a drug she can't get enough of. Her relationship with Sawyer begins to affect all aspects of her life; she skips school, misses meetings with her guidance counsellor and begins lying to her father and sneaking Sawyer into her room at night. Her life finally unwinds completely when she learns as she breaks up with Sawyer, that she is pregnant.
The After chapters focus mainly on Sawyer's attempts to restart his relationship with Reena and her conflict over his reappearance in her life. Sawyer's presence is intensely painful to Reena because his abandonment of her at sixteen left her life in turmoil. Reena has to face him almost daily when he returns to bartending at the family restaurant. She experiences a great deal of conflict because she's in a relationship with her best friend Shelby's twin brother. Reena recognizes that Aaron has been a good influence in her life, offering her stability when she needed it most. When she starts meeting Sawyer, this results in tension between Reena and Shelby.
Sawyer's continued presence causes Reena's stepmother, Soledad to caution her to think more carefully this time before getting involved with him again. However, Reena comes to recognize that she still cares for Sawyer. But a confrontation between Reena and her family over her rekindling her relationship with Sawyer leads to a family crisis, the beginning of healing and Reena taking control of her future.
How To Love is a story of hurt and conflict, but also forgiveness and redemption. Sawyer is a sort of prodigal son, an Oxycontin drug addict who impregnates his girlfriend and abandons her, only to return, clean and set on repairing the situation by accepting his responsibility to Reena and Hannah. Sawyer returns home, begins to work again at the restaurant and tries to repair relationships with his parents, Reena and her parents, especially her father.
Like Sawyer, Reena also is in need of forgiveness and redemption. Reena was an awkward teen with few friends, whose secret crush gradually drew her into a manipulative relationship that ended in disaster. As a result Reena is a young woman burdened by a great amount of guilt; guilt over Allie's death "...I wished her away for the first time in our entire friendship while we sat here, thinking maybe you'd notice me after she was gone...", guilt over lying to her father and eventually sneaking around with Sawyer, guilt over hurting Aaron and Shelby. Reena needs to forgive herself for what happened surrounding Allie but she also needs to forgive Sawyer for the wrong he did to her and her father for his emotional abandonment when she needed him most.
A major source of stress and conflict in Reena life is the relationship she has with her father. Reena is well aware that her pregnancy has been a huge disappointment for her father who did not speak to her for eleven weeks after she revealed her pregnancy. Reena is still struggling two years later with shame, frustration and guilt. Sawyer's reappearance does little to help this but instead revives the feelings:
"I knew from the second I saw him that Sawyer turning up here was going to unearth all kinds of nastiness for my father, and just standing near him I'm hit with that familiar sear of frustration and shame. For a second I'm sixteen again, pregnant and hopeless, every careful plan for my future scattered like hayseed in a dry wind."Cotugno does an excellent job of demonstrating that the responsibility for and burden of the consequences of sexual activity fall heavily upon women. A very poignant part of this novel is when Reena discovers she is pregnant and how she reacts to this. Reena can't tell anyone at first and it is heartrending to see her come to the realization that her plans for the immediate future are no longer possible. Typically, she dreads telling her parents because of how they will react.
Another interesting facet of How To Love, is the issue of religion. Reena and Sawyer's family are practicing Catholics who attend church regularly. Her father is a devout Catholic who goes to confession regularly and Soledad prays to the Virgin Mary for everything. The reader knows less about the LeGrandes devotions. Regardless, both sets of parents react strongly when their children step outside of what is considered acceptable behaviour. The LeGrandes throw Sawyer out of the house when he tells them he's not going to college and Reena's father doesn't talk to her for almost three months. While there are many Catholics who do take a hardline towards their children who make mistakes, the majority of Catholics today tend to have a more compassionate approach to their teenage sons and daughters who get into trouble.
Overall, How To Love is one of the better young adult novels that realistically explores the issue of teen pregnancy. Its strengths are the well crafted characters who are complex and therefore, believable and the relationships Cotugno creates between them.
How To Love by Katie Cotugno
New York: Balzer & Bray an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers 2013