Friday, June 15, 2012

Saving June

Saving June
by Hannah Harrington
Published by Harlequin Teen
ISBN-10: 0373210248
336 pages
Available on
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview.

4.5 / 5 cupcakes

I will get to the bottom line, straight away: you must read this book, because if you don't, you miss something extraordinary.

The plot appears simple: Harper Scott's older sister, June, commits suicide a week before she would have graduated from high school. The girls' parents are divorced, their mother having already succumbed to grief over her marriage and their father all but evaporated from their lives. June was the "good" daughter, seemingly confident, successful and the standard to which her parents held Harper.

And then she kills herself, and Harper finds the body.

The book begins at June's wake, during which Hannah Harrington establishes the taut dynamics in the Harper home: Mom is vacant and self-focused on her own loss, Dad is on the periphery, Aunt Helen is brittle and judgmental, and Harper is unable to cry or, for that matter, appear terribly disturbed by her sister's death. We also meet Harper's best friend, Laney, as well as Jake Tolan, a mysterious boy who shows up, smokes, and irritates Harper.

Since June did not leave a note, Harper is forced to try and figure out why her sister killed herself. She pries through June's stuff and uncovers a few clues. She also discovers one last thing she can do for her sister: take June's ashes, which her parents plan to split, and scatter them in California, a place June desperately wanted to go to.

Harper, Laney and Jake hop in Jake's minivan, affectionately named Joplin (after the singer, not the Missouri town), and head west. Jake, as Joplin indicates, is a fan of classic rock and the blues, and the road trip not only gives Harper a chance to take care of her sister, it also provides a learning opportunity about music. (Hannah Harrington even provides playlists for us, so that we can create the soundtrack for the book.)

What makes Saving June so good - so phenomenal, actually - is its realism. Harper is confused and unsettled. She feels guilty. She also feels a little unburdened. She feels forgotten and abandoned. But mostly she feels lost. Why did June kill herself? What was her relationship with Jake? What will Harper do when Laney heads off to college? Can anything come of Harper's interest in photography? And most of all, who is Harper without her sister serving as the measuring stick for her life?

As Harper herself observes,
Well, my head could use some clearing. Everything is so complicated. The mess with Laney. How I feel about Jake. How I feel about my sister. I want someone to make things black-and-white. Someone to tell me, These are the people worth caring about, who won't hurt you or let you down. These are the people who will put you through the wringer and abandon you in the worst ways. When it really counts.

The one thing Harper knows to be true is that June was more than how she was categorized; she was not the person they wanted her to be.

I don't want to think about Aunt Helen. She's just like everyone else downstairs, seeing in June only what they wanted to see - a perfect daughter, perfect friend, perfect student, perfect girl. They're all grieving over artificial memories, some two-dimensional, idealized version of my sister they've built up in their heads because it's too scary to face reality. That June had something in her that was broken.

Harper realizes that Jake hold some of the answers, but she can't bring herself to ask him. And that's something I really liked about this book. Harper wants to know, but she's afraid to find out. She waits for Jake to tell her about June, even as she yearns to interrogate him. She doesn't want to know that someone saw June's death coming, that Jake knew her sister better than Harper did. But at the same time, she wishes June had a Laney - a friend to stand by her side.

This book is beautifully written. Harper makes mistakes; oy, does she make mistakes. She sometimes says the wrong thing, sometimes does the wrong thing. She will fill your heart with love for her even while she breaks it with her loss. Laney and Jake are nicely developed, too. They each have struggles, and each of them needs something from the trip to California.

I do, however, have two quibbles with this book. The first is that a resolution to on character's problem seems very convenient, almost cheapening the issue in the first place. It was an unexpected development, because nothing comes easy for Harper. The other quibble is the adults in Harper's family, who seem like cardboard, stock characters.

But those complaints are minor when seen in the scope of this book. It is just so good. It will make you laugh, it may make you cry. Read it. Right now.

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