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Book Review: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

When most people think of Joss Whedon, they tend to think of the guy who writes kick-ass girls.  Which he does.  But when I think of Joss Whedon I think of this: you are born into a family, but you also build a family and in many ways, that family is so much stronger because those are the people you have fallen in love with along the way.  Buffy came from a broken home, but she built the strongest of families with Xander and Willow and Giles and in the end, even Spike.  When Angel left he too built his own family in LA, with Cordelia and Wesley and Fred and Lorne.  And in Firefly, the rag tag gang of outlaws became a family that gathered together to protect the weakest among them, River (even if Jayne did occasionally stumble).

McFarland & Company (June 23, 2005) 978-0786421725

What, you may ask, does this have to do with How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr?  Why, I’m glad you asked.

“I’m still going to love you, always. And in the rock-paper-scissors of life, love is rock. fear, anger, everything else…no contest.”

You see, I have been working with teens for 19 years now and one of the most common things I see among them is a certain brokenness.  Yes, it is normal and natural to go through that difficult transitional phase of separating from parents and becoming your own person.  But to be quite frankly honest, a lot of my teens haven’t really had parents to go through that separation phase with.  No, they were struggling more than anything to find someone – anyone – to connect with.  My teens were being raised by grandparents, single mothers, and far too often – themselves really.  I have sat in a room with 70 teens and felt the need to belong to someone, anyone, buzzing in the air with such a ferocious electric energy that it seemed like we would all soon spontaneously combusts as if hit by a lightning bolt.  These teens were the dry, parched trees in a desert just ripe for burning when that electric need coursed through the air – there was nothing they could do but burst into flames with their parched desperation.

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; 1 edition (October 18, 2011) 978-0316036061

Enter Mandy Kalinowski.  Mandy is a pregnant teen from a very broken home.  She is the teen whose mother tells her to sell her soul to a man to be taken care of financially, not to be loved, not to feel that sense of connection; no, to Mandy’s mom sex and abuse and making sure you stay pretty are the price you pay to make sure that there is a roof over your head and food on your table.  Love, happiness and self-fulfilment aren’t even possibilities.

Enter Jill MacSweeney.  Jill is a senior in high school that had a grounded life until her father passed away and she is left reeling without her anchor.  To muddy the waters even more, Jilly’s mother has decided to adopt a baby to honor a promise her and her deceased husband made years ago.  It is this adoption that causes the two teens paths to cross, and it is not a pretty crossing.  Sara Zarr does not do pretty crossings you know, she gets to the down and dirty reality of life before taking us to a point where we think that we can even begin to see hope.

“Try a little tenderness …”

To break it down for you, it goes like this: Mandy comes to live with Jill and her mom while they wait for the baby to be born and adopt it.  Jill is not at all on board with this plan.  Mandy looks at everything that Jill has and thinks, hmmm – this is kinda awesome.  Mandy also wrestles with the emotions of whether or not she can give her child up for adoption.  Jill wrestles with the emotions of losing her dad and having pushed everyone in her life away out of grief.  Jill and her mom try to find a way to deal with everything that being Jill and her mom entails.  And then there is the most awesome resolution that I didn’t even know was possible but looked up and it sure enough is true.  I can’t tell you what it is because I don’t want to spoil the book for you.  Insert pouty face here because I would love to discuss the merits of this.

So I will get back to talking about the book.  Mandy and Jill are both whiny, annoying characters at times who do a lot of self-sabotaging behaviors and make it really hard for you to care about them.  In other words, Mandy and Jill are totally typical teenagers.  But somehow you do care about them.  Although true confession, I really cared about Jill and although I completely understood the where and why of Mandy, it was so much harder for me to get invested in her character.  That may be more a me issue than a character issue, reading is so very subjective.

I really liked that even though Sara Zarr employed the whole dead parent card, here it was not a device but a part of the story that added emotional resonance and clearly illustrated that before the dead parent Jill was in fact part of a happy, healthy, functioning family.  And her mom was clearly doing her best to be there for her, even in the midst of her own grief.  So I am giving points for parental involvement.

I really wrestled throughout the book with the adoption storyline because (keep in mind I am in no way a lawyer) the way they go about it seems completely illegal and unsafe, emotionally that is.  Mandy makes it clear that there can be no lawyers, no contracts, nada, zilch, nothing.  Here Jill’s mom is depicted as being an intelligent community woman and yet she doesn’t seem to understand the tremendous ramifications of the situation.  It kind of didn’t mesh with the character, but I think she was trying to explain that away given the emotionally vulnerable state she was in, which I kind of understood but still gritted my teeth.  But then finally, there is a moment where a doctor says, um but what about and AHA! – there is that very necessary jolt of reality.

In the end I found this to be an uplifting story and there are teens out there that need to read it.  There are those Mandy’s in this world who need to know that in the end, they may just find a family that they can be a part of.  For that reason alone I recommend that libraries add this book to their collections.  If you agree with Joss Whedon, you are doing something right in my book.  4 out of 5 stars because there are a few hiccups along the way, but Sara Zarr does authentic teen voice well.

Love is rock. This review is dedicated to my own adopted “mom” and librarian mentor, who is definitely 5 stars and my favorite Joss Whedon fan.