Book Review: How To Save A Life by Sara Zarr
Love and loss, belonging and alienation — these weighty topics are the backbone of How To Save A Life, a moving but never oppressive young adult novel by talented author Sara Zarr.
Jill, a high school senior, is so choked by grief over her father’s death ten months prior that she’s practically consumed by the anger she carries with her. Having pushed all of her friends away and barely hanging onto her on-again, off-again boyfriend Dylan, Jill lives with her mother Robin in their lovely Denver home, struggling to make it through each day without having to confront her loss all over again. Meanwhile, Robin has so much love to give that she decides to adopt a baby — a spur of the moment decision that sends Jill around the bend.
Mandy is the pregnant 19-year-old, almost too naive for words, who comes into Robin and Jill’s lives, carrying a burden of secrets and lies and desperate need. Mandy’s life has been a horror, with a mother incapable of mothering, who has subjected Mandy to a string of her awful boyfriends and filled Mandy’s head with constant lectures on how to attract a man, how to catch a man, how to keep a man. Mandy insists on an open adoption — but no lawyers or social workers — and when Robin eagerly agrees, Mandy catches a train from Omaha to Denver and moves in with Robin and Jill.
As we see events unfold in alternating chapters narrated by Jill and Mandy, we are privy to each girl’s slightly skewed and unhealthy view of their worlds. Jill’s sad truth is that as much as she loves her mother, her father was the one she was closest to, the one who taught her everything, was her champion and idol, and she is only half of herself without him. Mandy has nothing, and as she settles into what is intended to be a temporary arrangement with Robin and Jill, she realizes that she’s never felt a sense of home before in her life, and realizes how very much she wants that — not just for her unborn baby, but for herself.
Jill is initially aghast at what she sees as a poorly thought-out, spontaneous decision by Robin, and she is hostile and suspicious around Mandy. But little by little, Jill and Mandy start to connect, and Jill realizes that maybe she can help Mandy as well as her mother, and who knows? maybe even herself.
The voices of the two girls are distinct and authentic, and although Mandy struck me as too odd to be real at first, it quickly becomes clear that there are reasons why she acts and thinks the way she does. Robin is wonderful and supportive — in fact, she may be slightly too ideal to be true, but that’s hardly important here. What matters is that the author gives each girl a strong foundation and believable character growth. Jill and Mandy bring much needed change to each others’ lives, and in a way force each other to snap out of their unhealthy or isolating behaviors and mindsets and start thinking about the future.
The narrative flows quickly, and we come to care deeply about all three of the women involved: Jill, Mandy, and Robin. There’s heartbreak and pain, but also tentative steps forward, the easing of sorrow, and the creation of new lines of connection and belonging.
I found How To Save A Life moving and engaging, emotionally rich yet not without moments of humor and fun as well. I read Sara Zarr’s recently published Roomies (written with coauthor Tara Altebrando) last month, and loved it as well. Based on these two wonderful novels, I’m eager to read more by this author as soon as I can.
Title: How To Save A Life
Author: Sara Zarr
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 2011
Genre: Young adult contemporary fiction