Review: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

How to Save a Life
by Sara Zarr

ISBN-13: 9-780316-036061
Published: October 2011 from Little, Brown
Rating: 4 ♥ / 5 ♥ – I really liked it

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.

How to Save a Life seems, at the beginning, to be a fairly straight forward book: Jill has lost her father and her mother has decided to adopt a baby, and Mandy is pregnant and choosing to give her baby up – to Jill’s mother. But it is so much more than that. Jill and Mandy are both going through a very difficult time in their lives, and their paths cross just when they both need it – even if they don’t realize it.

There are a number of difficult topics touched on in this book, and they are handled with care, concern and sensitivity. Sara Zarr doesn’t disregard or skate over their importance but she doesn’t sensationalize them either. What really drew me in to this book is how well characterized Jill, Mandy and the other characters are. Jill is so lost without her father around that she’s been isolating herself from everyone. It takes an unexpected meeting with a former classmate, and Mandy’s intrusion on her life, to bring her back to a semblance of her former self – but changed and grown through tough times. And Mandy. Oh Mandy. I just wanted to wrap her up in cotton wool and keep her safe from everything that would damage her. Mandy has not had an easy life, though she doesn’t seem to acknowledge it. It is only as the book unfolds that Mandy’s point of view chapters give us hints and glimpses into how she grew up, and the growing concern that something more is being unsaid about her pregnancy. And can I just say, I loved that Jill had a mom who is present and involved in her life.

How to Save a Life is a complex, gripping contemporary novel about two girls finding their way in life again, and realizing that family is what you make of it.

Hardcover copy received from Hachette Book Group Canada in exchange for my honest review. Thank you!


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