Friday, March 23, 2012

Review: How to Save A Life

Sara Zarr
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
A year after the sudden death of her dad, Jill's mom has decided to adopt a baby -- from a pregnant teen she met on an online forum. Though her mother trusts the soon-to-be birth mother, Mandy, the sharp, withdrawn, sometimes mean Jill has some issues with it all. Not only is the whole thing happening without lawyers, social workers, or any sort of official paperwork, but Jill feels like her mother's trying to replace one family member with another. Meanwhile Mandy's desperate for a chance at a different sort of life than the one she came from and when she comes to stay with Jill and her mother Robin, realizes exactly what sort of life she'd like to have and wants to, through this adoption, give her child.

It's no secret that I'm a huge Sara Zarr fan. Sweethearts is one of my all-time favorite books and Zarr is such a great writer, so I went into How to Save A Life with some expectations. I was eager to see how Zarr would handle a split-POV novel and the answer is: wonderfully. Jill (sarcastic, grieving, withdrawn, angry) and Mandy (desperate, naive, strong in a surprising sort of way) are such different characters with noticeably distinct voices. While Jill has a mom, a stable home, friends, and a somewhat-steady boyfriend, Mandy comes from a very different world and grew up following her mother from boyfriend to boyfriend  and never developed many (or any, it seems) friendships. Because of this Mandy, though nearly 19 years old, seems quite young. Her entire view of the world up until this point has been shaped by her mother, whose opinions on how she should look and act are dictated entirely by what she thinks will attract a man. (Mandy's mother, for this and other reasons, goes down in the "Worst Fictional Mothers Ever" hall of fame.)

Jill, on the other hand, is headstrong and often harsh. When her dad was around she had someone to keep her balanced; their personalities were very much alike and he understood her more than her mother does. Without him, it's hard for Jill to remain the person she was, the person he always helped her to be. This was heartbreaking and her grief and struggle comes through so vividly in a couple of scenes. However, for one reason or another it was difficult to really get a grasp of Jill's emotions for much of the book, and while I now suspect this was probably intentional -- because Jill herself is so intent on pushing away her feelings -- when I was reading the book it bothered me.

There are a number of romantic interests here and they rarely follow the expected path. Jill's on/off boyfriend, Dylan, served as a foil to her many times throughout the book and was quite possibly my favorite character in the novel while Mandy's inner turmoil about the father of her baby is an added dimension of complication here. Likewise the feelings between Jill, Mandy, and Jill's mother (Robin) are so complex and so true; their relationships start out formal and sometimes antagonistic and then grow into something truly beautiful and so real.

The ending of this novel is also worth mentioning. It would be so easy for the events of the last few chapters to come across as cheesy or unrealistic, but the build-up is so fantastic that it works. It works perfectly. I wasn't always sure, at certain points during this novel, how much I really liked it. It sometimes felt as if the story was bobbing along without much to keep it anchored and certain elements (Jill's grief, for example) seemed underused or relegated to the sidelines. However, in the last fourth of the novel everything I wasn't sure about came together and it came together so incredibly well. This is a book that takes a while to really sink in and gives you plenty to think about. It's a story of family, loss, and new life, but more than anything it's a book about love. All types, from family to romantic to friendship to those difficult-to-name types of love that Zarr writes so well.


  1. Great review, seems like a heavy read.

    1. It's one of those reads that doesn't fully impact you until you've finished and had time to think about it.

  2. I really loved this book. I agree that it's a book that needs to be read to conclusion, the the ending was very satisfying.