How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 341 pages
Jill MacSweeny just wishes everything could go back to normal. But ever since her dad died, she’s been isolating herself from her boyfriend, her best friends–everyone who wants to support her. And when her mom decides to adopt a baby, it feels like she’s somehow trying to replace a lost family member with a new one.
Mandy Kalinowski understands what it’s like to grow up unwanted–to be raised by a mother who never intended to have a child. So when Mandy becomes pregnant, one thing she’s sure of is that she wants a better life for her baby. It’s harder to be sure of herself. Will she ever find someone to care for her, too?
As their worlds change around them, Jill and Mandy must learn to both let go and hold on, and that nothing is as easy–or as difficult–as it seems.
It’s a bad time for Jill MacSweeny ever since her father died. Always a daddy’s girl, Jill feels lost without her dad, but now she just feels angry that her mom had decided to do the unthinkable: adopt a baby. And not just adopt a baby, but let the mother of the baby live with them until the baby is delivered. Jill shuts them both out, and couldn’t care less about the baby or shopping for baby jogger mini doubles, but deep inside she feels hurt that her mom seems to be moving on fine while she isn’t. Mandy Kalinowski is the pregnant girl in question, and she’s always known how it feels to be unwanted. Mandy wants a better life for her baby, and she thinks Robin MacSweeny would be able to give just that. She moves in with them as agreed, and she finds Robin to be a very nice person, even if her daughter Jill never liked Mandy. But as her due date grows nearer, she’s faced with doubts: can she really let her baby go? And if she does, what happens to her after that?
I was pretty sure I was going to like How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr, but I was surprised at how much I ended up loving it. I’m a big fan of Sara Zarr, not just her books but her posts at the Good Letters blog. She’s quickly becoming one of my sources of inspiration online, and I like that her books reflect what she believe in. I wanted to read this as soon as I got it, but I kind of feared that I wasn’t ready for the emotional punch that it had, especially after most of the reviews said a lot about tears being shed and all that. But the good reviews gave me something to look forward to, so reading it at the start of 2012 felt like a perfect gift for myself.
Like in Sara Zarr’s other books, there is a quiet beauty in how Jill and Mandy’s story unfolded. They were two characters from the opposite ends of the spectrum, clashing horribly at first. Honestly, I thought both characters were unlikeable. When I read Jill’s parts, I wanted to shake her for being so bitter and out of it. She reminded me a bit of Macy in The Truth About Forever, but also not quite because Macy seemed easier to approach compared to Jill who completely shut everyone out. Mandy, on the other hand, is someone who I would probably steer clear from if I met someone like her in real life. I could understand why Jill would rather avoid her, aside from the fact that she was carrying the baby that Jill never wanted to be a part of their family. Mandy is socially awkward and more often than not, the things she says hit the wrong note in other people who do not know how to be patient with her. I admit to be that kind of person, unfortunately, so sometimes reading Mandy’s chapters were a struggle. Oh, but I also ached for her so much, too. The two grew on me as the story went on, and it wasn’t even because there were drastic changes to their personality. In fact, the changes that happened to them didn’t feel like changes at all — they were choices. The choice to do something right, to think of others first, the choice to love in spite of and because of things they cannot understand. It all unfolds beautifully in the story, and it filled my heart with so much love for these two girls that I just want the best for them too.
Normally I would ramble on about how the plot was good and how the other characters were equally as good here, but to be perfectly honest, I can’t. Not that the other characters weren’t good (they were, and they were very fun to read) or the plot was bad (it wasn’t, although the predictable factor is high). It’s just that the book really concentrates on how Jill and Mandy’s lives were changed and saved by the choices that they and the people who loved them made. It all came together so beautifully that I didn’t care if I sort of predicted the ending pages ago — it was still worth getting to it. I was happy that it ended that way. Overall, How to Save a Life is a story of family and love, and how that kind of love can really save a life.
I end this review with a quote from her post about the book on the Good Letters Blog, which I think sums up why I loved this book so much:
As reluctant as I am to talk about “themes” in my work or to explain it or myself, I can see, after four published novels and three unpublished, that this idea of intentional family, of claiming and being claimed, is one of the themes lurking beneath and hovering around all of my work.
My stories seem to always involve people choosing to love other people, in spite of the pain those people have sometimes brought them, in spite of the way they let each other down, in spite of both their minor imperfections and deep flaws.
In the interviews I’ve done about How to Save a Life thus far, nine times out of ten I’m asked if I worried that one of the characters, Jill, was unsympathetic or unlikeable. No, I say. I didn’t worry about it. My editor did, to an extent, and I worked a little on showing glimpses of Jill’s humanity. But not much. Because the point about love, this free will love of the people we call family or true friends, the people we take into our lives, the ones that lead us to claim “you are mine,” is that it doesn’t depend on them (or us) being sympathetic characters.
It’s the kind of love we all hope for.