How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
Publication Date: October 18, 2011
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: death, loss of a parent, pregnancy, adoption, abuse, new beginnings
Format read: ARC from ALA.
Summary: After her father’s passing, Jill’s mom decides to adopt a baby and allows the pregnant teenage girl, Mandy, to move in with them during the last few weeks of her pregnancy.
Jill’s dad is her best friend – they’re two of a kind, they understand each other. He’s the parent she’s closer to. That is, until he passes away. Jill and her mom, Robin, have never been incredibly close. After his passing, they find it even more difficult to communicate and grieve together. One of my favorite quotes (of the many I wrote down) from How to Save a Life best summarizes their relationship:
“Mom and I, different as we are, are twin planets orbiting the same
universe of grief but never quite making contact.” (page 41)
Robin chooses to act on something she and her late husband had always considered – adopting a baby. Jill doesn’t understand. She assumes her mom is trying to replace the loss of one person with the life of another. She’s angry and unsupportive – feeling like her mom is distancing herself from raising her since she’ll soon be off to college. She’s not sure her mom has thought through everything and questions how she chooses to go about adopting the baby.
Mandy, the 18-year-old pregnant girl, arrives on a train to Denver. Robin opens their home to Mandy during the last few weeks of her pregnancy. Things are quite amiss with raging emotions, unspoken grief, and hidden lies Mandy refuses to bring to light. Jill is skeptical of Mandy and takes every opportunity to tell her mom that she doesn’t believe her dad would agree with her decisions.
Each chapter alternates back and forth between Jill and Mandy’s perspectives. We see how cynical and hard Jill has become since her father’s death. We get a sense that she’s searching and cannot figure out how to be the happy, easy-going girl she once was. She’s pushed away all her friends and her boyfriend. Mandy is running from demons – a mom who jumps from boyfriend to boyfriend hoping to find a money-bag to take care of her. Mandy comes across much younger than she is, so innocent, but in fact, her history is much darker than anyone could predict.
This being my first Zarr book, I was completely mesmerized by her writing. I’m not one who usually writes down tons of quotes or re-reads sentences to reflect on the magic author’s create with words. I did with this book. I treaded slowly and cautiously because every word was so carefully weighed. I had a very real sense of Robin’s home, Jill’s place of work (a bookstore!), and the coffee shop Jill visited to meet up with her new friend Ravi. But, I also clearly saw distinguishable characters that were extremely authentic and original.
I admire how Zarr balanced grief with the prospect of hope. Each character had to strip away heavy burdens and went through an internal metamorphosis. While her subject matter was deep, Zarr didn’t weigh me down with agonizing details that took away from her main goal — to show us that we need people to lean on during the hard times in our lives, no matter what the trials or struggles may be.
How to Save a Life is a notable story about how our lives can be shaken up and we have to slowly put the pieces back together — even if those pieces don’t fit back together exactly how they used to.