Review: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
Little, Brown & Company,  2011 (Currently Available)

Genre: Contemporary Realism

Face Value: As far as cover art goes, this is straight up lovely. I love the benches, the snow, the footprints, the lonely girl (Mandy, I assume) with her back to us. But I don’t like how much space is given to the title, especially since every time I look at it I get that song by The Fray stuck in my head and make irrelevant associations with the early seasons of Grey’s Anatomy.
Does it Break the Slate? It’s so getting there. Jill and Mandy are both in periods of transition, and they have some serious emotional baggage to sort through. But because of that, neither girl starts the book in a place of being a hardcore Slatebreaker. But, at the same time, this book itself is Slatebreaking. This story offers a perspective for people who are drowning in their sadness, it offers an honest look at what it means to be in that mental state and it offers characters that find their way out of it. Which, really, is pretty incredible. Plus, watching Mandy, in particular, rise above the expectations of womanhood that her mother has set out for her is both moving and inherently Slatebreaking.

Who would we give it to? Seriously, the writing is so high quality here that I’d give it to almost anybody. Well, anybody who didn’t mind crying a fair bit at least. But specifically, I’d hand out this book to fans of contemporary realistic fiction that deals with major teen issues, so readers of Sarah Dessen, John Green, that sort of thing.


Review: The amazing thing about this book is that if someone gave you the in-brief plot summary it would sound incredibly maudlin and soap opera-y. Jill’s dad died a year ago, in a car accident, and neither she or her mom Robin is coping with it very well. When Robin decides to move forward by adopting a baby, Jill’s furious, and even more furious when 6 months pregnant Mandy enters their lives. But throughout the course of the book, both girls find what they need to start to move forward. It sounds sentimental, but it really isn’t. The writing is rock solid and these characters are so profoundly real that you’re almost guaranteed to be enraptured by Mandy and Jill’s stories.  The thing is, Sara Zarr, is such a good writer, that she makes every story she tackles, no matter how “issue-y” it seems, personal, relevant and utterly compelling. If you haven’t read any of her work yet, get your hand on a copy of Sweethearts immediately.

The book is told in alternately narrated chapters, and we get a beautiful sense of each girl’s character and journey. Each voice is clear and personal, and oh my god, I just wanted to give both Jill and Mandy a hug about partway through. Except there’s no way Jill would have let me hug her, and Mandy is so desperate for love that I don’t know how she would react. One of the really Slatebreaking, and powerful aspects of this book is the way it deals with emotional pain in a plausible way, and the interwoven narratives of this book will both break your heart and build it back up again.

Much is made, in YA these days, about love triangles, about plotlines that focus on a girl choosing between two hot guys who love her. Jill has two love potential love interests in this book, but this might have been the most heartbreaking and realistic so-called “love triangle” I’ve ever encountered. Dylan is a seriously good guy, who really cares about Jill. The way we saw their relationship fizzling out, but him not wanting to bail on her in her grief was beautifully put together. And the way he cares for her, and struggles to do the right thing for her in her sadness is so lovely. This description of the two of them together, from Mandy’s point of view, says a whole lot in just a few words:

“Jill nods, still facing the mantel. She raises one of her hands to wipe at her face, then Dylan takes it. Their fingers intertwine – at first cautiously, it seems. Then Jill’s hand tightens around his, and Dylan turns her body to him and puts his other arm around her and holds her, pressing her hand, still in his, to his chest. It’s so tender and gentle, the way he enfolds her.

Maybe my mom got treated like a queen by some of her boyfriends, but I never saw any of them hold her like this”

But Ravi, Jill’s coworker who becomes her love interest, is also a great guy. And throughout the course of the book, we see her realize that he represents her own ability to move forward from her sadness. As she explains “After I’ve successfully slashed and burned a huge swath of acreage around me, just in case anyone tried to come near, Ravi has forged across and I let him.” Letting Ravi into her life is a huge part of Jill being able to move forward. It’s not about choosing between Ravi and Dylan. It’s about growing up and moving on.

While Jill has to come to terms with her grief, and who she is without her father, Mandy has to figure out who she is without her mother telling her. Having been told she’s worthless her whole life, and that she needs to find and please a man in order to be anything, Mandy has a really hard time either believing in her own worth or defining herself outside of that. It becomes clear really fast that Mandy’s had to deal with a hell of a lot more than is fair for any one person. But throughout her pregnancy, and throughout spending time with Jill and Robin she starts to be able to articulate who she is, and what she wants.

The biggest theme of the book, from my point of view, is family. What does it mean to have a family, what does it mean to create your own family? What does it mean if the person who meant family to you isn’t there anymore? Not easy questions, and it’s unpacked in a powerful way. Jill and Robin have to negotiate what it means to be a family now that Jill’s dad isn’t there to tie them together. Mandy needs to figure out what it means to be part of a family that cares about her. And (without giving too much away) the family that emerges by the end of the book is a really good one.

Reviewed from copy purchased at Changing Hands bookstore.

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