Book Review: How To Save A Life by Sara Zarr

Book Review: How To Save A Life by Sara Zarr

How to Save a LifeLove 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.


The details:

Title: How To Save A Life
Author: Sara Zarr
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 2011
Genre: Young adult contemporary fiction
Source: Library

Wishing & Waiting on Wednesday

Nothing like a Wednesday for thinking about the books we want to read! My Wishing & Waiting on Wednesday post is linking up with two fabulous book memes, Wishlist Wednesday (hosted by Pen to Paper) and Waiting on Wednesday (hosted by Breaking the Spine).

This week, I’m excited about an upcoming YA release:


Roomies by Sara Zarr & Tara Altebrando
(release date December 24, 2013)


The countdown to college has begun.

When Elizabeth receives her freshman-year roommate assignment at the beginning of summer, she shoots off an email to coordinate the basics: TV, microwave, mini-fridge. She can’t wait to escape her New Jersey beach town, and her mom, and start life over in California.
The first note to Lauren in San Francisco comes as a surprise; she had requested a single. But if Lauren’s learned anything from being the oldest of six, it’s that you can’t always get what you want, especially when what you want is privacy.
Soon the girls are emailing back and forth, sharing secrets even though they’ve never met. With family relationships and childhood friendships strained by change, it suddenly seems that the only people Elizabeth and Lauren can rely on are the complicated new boys in their lives…and each other.
With humor and heart, Sara Zarr, National Book Award finalist for Story of a Girl, and Tara Altebrando, acclaimed author of The Pursuit of Happiness, join forces for a novel about that time after high school, when everything feels like it’s ending just as it’s beginning.

This sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it?

Freshman year of college is such a major transitional time, and it’s always interesting to me to see how it’s portrayed in fiction. (Recent great examples include Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell and Just One Day by Gayle Forman).

True confession time: My freshman roommate experience was NOT a good one — so maybe it’s time to read about one that starts off on a more positive note!

What are you wishing for this Wednesday?

So what are you doing on Thursdays and Fridays? Come join me for my regular weekly features, Thursday Quotables and Flashback Friday! You can find out more here — come share the book love!


Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I’m building a Book Blog Meme Directory, and need your help! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!