September 5, 2013

Review: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
Published: 2011, Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Format: Hardcover, 341 pages
Source: Borrowed from library
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Mom and I, different as we are, are twin planets orbiting the same universe of grief but never quite making contact. Maybe this baby is a good thing and I'm just not seeing it. Maybe it'll be a new little sun for us, or at least for Mom. Or maybe it will be a black hole that will suck us in and tear us to bits. Either way, we're at the point of no return. Hello, event horizon.

Ever since her father died in a car accident ten months ago, Jill's life has become irrevocably changed, and she along with it. Her mother has done her best to move forward, hoping to help Jill heal as well, but Jill wants none of it. In her grief she's alienated her friends and boyfriend Dylan. 

Mandy has not had an easy life, traveling around with her mother and whoever her mother's current boyfriend is. Mandy's grown up knowing that she was an unwanted child, and so, when she finds herself pregnant, Mandy believes her pregnancy is a ticket out of her old life and onto something better.

Jill and Mandy's worlds collide when Jill's mother decides that she wants to adopt another baby: Mandy's baby. In order to make the adoption as easy as possible, Mandy is to spend the remaining few weeks of her pregnancy living with Jill and her mother Robin. The new living situation is not easy or pleasant for either of them, but through learning to understand one another both broken girls begin a slow healing process.

I actually had a full review of this book written, but I just didn't feel satisfied with it. I'd noted my thoughts on the book on a more superficial level, without really describing how this book made me feel. So in this rewrite I hope I better convey my thoughts of Zarr's How to Save a Life. This revised review is a lot more personal than my reviews normally are, but in this case I think it's completely necessary.

What brings Jill and Mandy together, not to mention Jill's mother Robin, is the adoption of Mandy's baby. Adoption is a subject discussed intelligently and at length throughout How to Save a Life, and I was very impressed by it. I really appreciated the unconventionality of the adoption taking place, as well as how all three women offered completely different perspectives on the process as a whole. Through these three, Zarr is able to demonstrate many of the emotions common in people undergoing an adoption: fear, uncertainty, loneliness, shame, excitement, longing, and hope. 

I'm by no means an expert on adoption, but I do have some experience with it, as my parents adopted a little girl from China when I was thirteen. My late pre-teen and early teenage years were difficult ones, and I do believe that the looming knowledge that another baby was coming into my family was a large part of the reason why. The adoption situation that Jill goes through is a little more extreme, in both age gap and family structure, and yet, I couldn't help but emphasize with her situation. I'd been there. Even though both my parents were part of the picture, I knew how frustrating (and scary) it could be to imagine how drastically your life could be altered by a new addition to the family. Like Jill, I screamed, retreated into myself, and could not control the tidal wave of emotions running through my system those first few months.

As the story continued, I particularly enjoyed witnessing the change in Jill's attitude with regard to her life in general, as well as the impending adoption. It's too bad that this book was published after my family adopted my sister, because I think reading this would have been a particularly cathartic experience, and could have given me a better perspective on everything. I can easily admit that my sister's adoption turned out to be one of the best things that happened to my family, as well as to me. I read this book waiting for Jill to come to the same conclusion (which she does, quite satisfyingly).
How to Save a Life is full of dark subject matters: grief, death, self-doubt, loneliness, uncertainty. But it is also full of hope. Hope in an unborn child, hope for a better future, hope that someone, somewhere understands us, and that we are not alone in our suffering. Zarr deftly manipulates the feelings of her characters and readers, piling on the darkness while always allowing tiny rays of hope to shine through. 

The hope is also demonstrated through the relationships that the two girls form, romantic, familial, and friendship. Perhaps it isn't a novel concept that humans gain strength through others, but it is approached in a truly compassionate and poignant way in How to Save a Life. From the tentative steps that Jill and Mandy take towards a friendship to the gradual melting of Jill's ice wall between herself and the rest of the world, Zarr shows how sometimes the best remedy is simply having the support of another person.

How to Save a Life was not a perfect read, however. At times I found the depth of emotional turmoil a bit frustrating, and I do wish, as the catalyst for the entire book, that Jill's mother Robin had been given even more of a voice. My main complaint is  the predictability of the ending, although I have to admit there is really no other way that this novel should have ended. 

Overall, though, I found myself to be quite impressed with my first experience reading Zarr. Her ability to create real, nuanced characters is impressive, as is the tight plot and strong writing. And I absolutely loved the fact that I was able to relate to her story on such a personal level. I plan on reading more of Zarr's books in the future.

Rating: 4 stars
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. I'm so glad you shared your personal story, Amanda, as it relates to this novel so perfectly. One of my neighbors adopted an Indian girl when her son very young, so they grew up together without any real issues as they never realized they were biological siblings until they were older. I love the perspective Zarr - and you - bring to this situation though. I loved this novel and the friendship formed between Jill and Mandy, along with the growth of the characters, was simply phenomenal. Zarr is unparalleled in that. Absolutely beautiful review, Amanda!(:

    1. Thank you, Keertana - I am glad as well. :) And that's a really interesting story you shared as well. I agree with all you said (obviously). I can't wait to read more books of Zarr's!

  2. This is one of my favorite contemporary reads and Sara Zarr is once of my favorite contemporary authors. In spite of your difficulty with Robin's voice, I am glad that you really enjoyed it overall! It's been a long time since I read it but it is impossible to forget how it made me feel.

    1. Oh, I'm sure. I know this will continue to resonate with me for a while - it already has, as I read it months ago now. I don't have a favorite YA contemporary author necessarily, but of the few I have read, Zarr is definitely towards the top.

  3. I am so glad, in the end, that you enjoyed this Zarr experience. I read this book after Magan liked it so much and I stayed up sitting on the bathroom floor finishing it up and crying. I thought it was really well done even if it took me a bit to get into it. (This seems to be a Zarr routine for me.)

    I actually didn't guess the ending. Maybe I was just... in denial or something but I remember feeling satisfied. I actually lent this to my mom to read. I think she's going to enjoy it. Zarr is a writer that crosses the line between YA and adult. I like that about her.

    Have you read any Tara Altebrando?

    1. Sometimes the books it's harder to get into initially ultimately end up being some of the most rewarding (or at least I've had that sort of experience quite a few times now). I can see Zarr also appealing to adults. I may also recommend that my mom reads this one. :)
      I have not read any Altebrando. I'm guessing she writes in a similar style? I'll have to look her up!

  4. Ordered this for my 13 year old. She finished it in 2 days. She loves to read and all the great books are finished in 5 days or less so this was a winner.
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