How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
Published: October 18th 2011 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Source: local library (teen book club selection)
Synopsis: Jill MacSweeney 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.
My thoughts: Sometimes a reaction to a book is entirely personal and it’s impossible to objectively review it. For me, How to Save a Life is one of those books. I simply couldn’t untangle my own personal experiences from my reading experience.
When I went to order sets for the library’s teen book club for the year, I wanted a balance of genres, so I was careful to select some contemporary and realistic, some historical, and some sci-fi and fantasy novels. Some I had already read and enjoyed and thought would be great for discussion, others were well-regarded, award-winning, and often recommended books I wanted to read. How to Save a Life was one I hadn’t read, but it appears on many award lists. Though I didn’t want to read a ton of “issue” books, it seemed to be a good example of one.
It did generate a great deal of discussion, and the overall reaction was positive, but it just didn’t work for me personally.
When I read reviews and the synopsis, I somehow overlooked that one of the characters had recently lost her father. I don’t know if it would have made me more or less inclined to read it had I known that beforehand, but it definitely impacted my enjoyment of the novel.
I lost my father when I was a teenager (I talked about it a little bit in this post). Perhaps because Jill’s character was too reminiscent of my own feelings after my dad died, or perhaps because I thought her portrayal didn’t at all capture the way I felt in that first year after he died, I didn’t like reading her sections. Yes, I realize those are contradictory—how can I both identify with Jill and find her experience off-putting? I still can’t really pinpoint exactly why this was an almost painful book to read, I just know that it was.
Jill is a prickly sort of character, which is very understandable given her circumstances. Only child + unexpected death of the parent she was closer too + surly teenager does not make her very endearing, but I often felt that her personality was being told rather than conveyed, and I thought her facial piercings and dyed hair were shorthand for angst in a very unbelievable way. In my experience, teens who dress this way are typically very interested in music, but Jill didn’t seem to have any special interests or hobbies. For someone who works in a bookstore, she wasn’t even bookish.
Mandy was much more sympathetic. Though it did seem that her appearance was used to contrast with Jill and serve as shorthand for her personality, it at least made sense for her character and was believable. Overall, I found her sections much more interesting to read. Her background was tragic and her behavior fascinated me. My main problem was how self aware she seemed. A character who recognized how socially awkward she was, yet still did weird things—like steal the address of the person sitting next to her on the train and write letters to him—just didn’t make sense to me.
I actually rather liked both Ravi, a former classmate and current co-worker of Jill’s with whom she strikes up a friendship that could become more, and her current boyfriend, Dylan, who is supportive and kind. I thought the touch of romance in the book was very well-executed. In high school, I think it’s very easy to get in a comfortable relationship and not question whether or not it will continue, especially in the face of a personal tragedy. Dylan and Jill’s relationship made sense, and the sparks she felt with Ravi also made sense.
I’m rarely a fan of alternating first person perspective, and this may have also influenced my enjoyment of the novel. Switching back and forth tends to throw me out of the narrative. While Jill and Mandy are distinct enough characters that I wasn’t getting them mixed up, I still wasn’t convinced the story needed to be told from both perspectives or that third person wouldn’t have been a better choice.
The plot was interesting, and I thought both issues—teen pregnancy/adoption and a death in the family—were handled well. Most readers seem to really adore this book, but I can’t say I enjoyed reading it. It was my first Sara Zarr book, and I’m definitely going to check out others before I decide I’m not a fan of her writing. Sometimes I think timing has as much to do with whether or not I enjoy a book as the writing style or subject matter, so perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood for this kind of story.
Keertana at Ivy Book Bindings: “Unflinching honesty is what I can always count on from Sara Zarr – and I love that.”
Catie at The Readventurer: “This is a story about Mandy and Jill finding peace and certainty within themselves, and learning to trust.”
9 thoughts on “Not for Me: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr”
I’ve had a mixed experience with Sara Zarr, but like Annie above, I’d recommend Story of a Girl. That was the first of hers that I read, and I loved it. An incredibly believable character. I really felt that book in my gut.
I’m definitely not giving up on Sara Zarr — I’ll have to check out Story of a Girl next.
I’m sorry this didn’t work out so well for you. I just read this two weeks ago, and my personal experiences also ended up affecting my reading experiences, although mine was more positive than yours. I also strongly identified with Jill because I was a teenager when my parents decided to adopt a baby. I found Jill’s reaction to the adoption very relatable, and for me it was a bit cathartic, I think. I’m also not a fan of dual narration, but the strong identification and understanding I formed with Jill helped me to better enjoy this book. I’m sorry the same didn’t happen for you, but at least you got a good discussion out of reading this with your book club!
I haven’t read Sara Zara yet but I want to. I’m not sure this is the book to start with. Teen pregnancy is a legitimate topic to cover in YA, but I prefer to shy away from it. I don’t mind alt POVs but it’s hard to do them well, and it doesn’t sound like either character was developed enough. But she’s T. Michael Martin (The End Games) mentor, so she’s got to be good. I’ll have to check out one of her other books. Great review :)
Although I loved the book, I can definitely see your points, especially about the main characters. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on Zarr’s Story of a Girl. It was my first of hers and is still a favorite, but I also know people who didn’t connect as much.