Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Review: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Title: How to Save a Life 

Author: Sara Zarr

Rating: 5 Stars

I cried. As someone who is frequently teased for never having cried during "The Notebook" or "The Titanic" and rather well-known for my ice-cold heart, this admission carries quite a bit of weight. How to Save a Life is a novel that hasn't gone unnoticed by readers, but I remained skeptical about reading it myself. Frankly speaking, I find little allure in novels about teenage pregnancy, let alone when paired alongside with grief. After reading - and absolutely loving - Small Damages earlier this year, however, I began to realize that my pre-conceived notions about novels that dealt with teen pregnancy were utterly unfounded. And How to Save a Life simply proved me right. Sara Zarr's most popular novel lives up to its hype and delivered above and beyond my sky-high expectations, instantly making her one of my favorite authors. Ever.

How to Save a Life alternates between the perspectives of Jill and Mandy whose voices are so distinct and yet carry the same underlying current of one who is lost. Mandy, who has grown up with her mother, has always felt the distinct loss of love in her life. Thus, when she becomes pregnant, she vows to take care of her child and provide her in a way her mother has never been able to. Although all Mandy knows is that she is beautiful, her heart is kind and she quickly finds a family to adopt her child. Jill, who has recently lost her father, is grieving. Jill has always been closer to her father, more like him than her mother, and as such, she is unable to understand her mother's desire to adopt a child - and its mother, temporarily. When Jill and Mandy's lives collide and come together under the same roof, their initial interactions are cold and one-sided, with Jill refuses to make Mandy feel at home. And yet, as she will soon find out, Jill needs Mandy and Mandy's child just as much as her mother needs her - and Mandy just may need the both of them too.

Unflinching honesty is what I can always count on from Sara Zarr - and I love that. Jill is hurting, lashing out and isolating herself from others to keep her grief contained. And yet, she acknowledges that even without the ache of a missing father, she was always the type of introvert who was distant, prone to say things without thinking and rude to a fault at times. Yet, the very moment Jill came onto the page, I understood her and her narration captured my heart. Whether it was her awkward interactions, screaming for help, with her boyfriend or even the difficult manner in which she tried - and failed - to connect with her mother, Jill is such an endearing character. Although she appears to be a cactus, instantly pricking those who come too close, her inner strength is incredible and her character persona is real in its flaws.

Mandy, on the other hand, was a character I took awhile to warm up to. When we first meet Mandy, she is chatting up a fellow stranger on a train, helplessly trying to ingratiate herself within his life, much to his surprise. And yet, although Mandy seems like a creep at first, we recognize her actions as a sign of longing - for love, for a place to belong, for people who accept her. In Jill's life, Mandy is both worried at the prospect of finding a new life for herself after her baby is born and frightened that Jill's mother will regret her decision to bring Mandy into her home. Jill, of course, does not trust Mandy at all, but with time, these two grow to share a close bond. Mandy's narration is filled more with day-to-day musings or past recollections rather than the busy life that Jill leads, but both are just as poignant. I especially enjoyed all the care given to mention Mandy's child and her own conflicted feelings over giving up the baby and wanting a better home for it. For many teens, myself included, Mandy's feelings are difficult to understand and even for adults, it's a challenge to allow yourself to put yourself in a situation the way Mandy did. And yet, Zarr makes us come to understand Mandy perfectly, delving into her mind and witnessing her steady growth as she comes to realize where - and who - she truly belongs with.

While these two girls, vivid protagonists whose lives seem so real, are the heart of How to Save a Life, so many other aspects made me appreciate it as well. First and foremost, it must be noted that I fell hard for the romance in this novel. For some reason, grief and romance go so well together - not entirely sure why - but for the first time, I think I understood. Jill's grief makes her closed off to others, but one boy in particular is able to understand her and look at her, not with sympathy or pity, but with empathy. With him, Jill is able to confront her past ghosts and come to terms with her father's death, along with the new change in her life that includes Mandy and a baby - one who will be Jill's younger sister or brother. One of the reasons this romance is so strong is because it is built upon conversation. Here are two people who meet and meet and meet again, doing nothing but talking and pouring their hearts out to one another, and that makes it perfect. Furthermore, their ending is open and ambiguous, but that's what makes it oh-so-perfect. It was flawed, but most importantly, it was real and never contrived or forced. It is, hands down, one of my favorite literary romances of all time. And I can assure you, I never expected to find that in this book, but the fact that I did spoke volumes.

Moreover, this book is so much more than a tale of two girls who grow to find solitude and acceptance in each other. Mandy and Jill teach each other so much about life, but they affect the lives of so many others too. Jill's mother, for instance, is also grieving and her struggles as a parent never overtook the plot, but they were given their due. Additionally, there is the comfort that Mandy grows to feel and that feeling of safety, to feel that wrapping itself around Mandy when it was never there before, is so heart-breaking. We don't realize it ourselves, having been enveloped in it for nearly all our lives, but to see it assume its shape upon Mandy was one of the most brilliant developments that steadily occurred as the novel wore on. How to Save a Life is not a novel that can be explained in chapters or with words. It is, truly, an experience of living and letting go and embracing the future. Of accepting others and moving on, no matter what dark forces you have to combat. And, most importantly, of finding the courage to open up to the people who will stand there and fight the dark with you.


  1. So, so glad you love this and that it melted your heart! I'm a big crier so I am sure I will cry when I stop saving this and read it.

    It sounds amazing, and I expect no less from Sara!

  2. I've seen few reviews for this one but I really haven't added it on my to-read list. It sounded like too girly for me. I really have some stupid ideas sometimes. Well I can only imagine what will happen with me after reading this book as I cry often! Great review! :)

  3. Oh my goodness! What a beautiful review, Keertana! I, like you, also have an ice-cold heart, so now I'm even more curious to read this one. However, the way you describe the characters interests me even more. Mandy and Jill seem so real and I'm glad you were able to warm up to both characters. Open-ended conclusions don't usually sit well with me, but it seems like it just WORKS in this case, eh? I'm going to have to check this book out since you loved it so much. Gorgeous review as always, Keertana! :)

  4. Oh, please. If you have an ice-cold heart, I'm a duck. Real, honest to goodness duck.
    While Jill and Mandy sound like amazing. extremely well fleshed-out characters, i just can't force myself to pick this up because I'm quite sure it would break my heart. If you cried, I don't doubt I would too, and I tend to shy away from such strong emotional reads. It sounds odd, I know, since I like emotional books, but not contemporary.
    As always, amazing review, my friend.

  5. Why have I never read anything by this author before? I just read Jen Ryland's review of Lucy Variations and clearly I need to jump on board the train and pick up one of her books! Also she's coming here mid May.

    Anyway, this is a truly moving and beautiful review. I am very curious about Mandy and Jill. Although, I agree that teen pregnancy books make me nervous, I think I can relate to some of their feelings since I am a mom myself. That certainly was the case with Small Damages. Plus a romance that you loved? That is something that I always love.

  6. I've seen How to Save a Life at the bookstore a few times, but I've never felt compelled to pick it up. I'm not sure why, but your review as always is making want to pick up this book because the story seems so realistic and the characters are perfect in their imperfections.

    Beautiful review as always Keertana! Are you sure you're not trying to bankrupt your readers lol? ;)

  7. Sounds like an amazing story on love and family issues - I loved your review on Small Damages and seeing that this one also deals with teen pregnancy, I think I'll have to get my hands on both of them. Thanks a lot, Keertana!

  8. Ugh! I HATE to cry!! HATE it! Still, I find myself usually loving emotional reads even while cussing at the amount of tissues I'm using. I don't know... might put this in the maybe pile. Still you make it sound good!

  9. I just read this a few weeks ago and I LOVED it. Gah, it was so perfect. I think I also might have judged it without basis, just because it dealt with teen pregnancy, which isn’t a topic I find appealing. But I think the dual-narrative and the author’s way of letting her readers see both sides of the story worked really well. And I loved how this touched on more than just pregnancy—romance, mourning, etc. I don’t think you’ve read this book yet (but you should), but Jill totally reminds me of the main character from Courtney Summers’ Fall for Anything.

    But yeah, this book was fantastic.

  10. Absolutely stunning review, Keertana. I have yet to read anything by Sarah Zarr, but if I could get up right now and go immediately to my local library in pursuit of one of her books, I would do so. I am often seen as cold-hearted too by others (I did cry during Titanic, but for some reason I find myself becoming more outwardly emotional while viewing movies rather than reading books), but I can totally see how the raw and emotional nature of a book like this could also cause me to break down. I have nothing else to say except this review is lovely and I'm definitely adding How to Save a Life to my TBR pile!

  11. A lovely review, Keertana! I don't usually read books that deal with teen pregnancy. In fact, my only experience with the topic at all is Juno. But this book sounds so profound and beautifully written that I might just give it a chance. Plus, I've never read anything by Sarah Zarr before and I really should. :D

  12. I am definitely going to read this. I don't know when but I shall make a note. I wasn't impressed at all by her newest novel but this one has received too many accolades to simply overlook. Lovely review.

  13. One of the best romances you have ever read? High praise indeed! I'm with Lauren, I need to give this one, and this author, a try. This is a wonderful heartfelt review, Keertana:)

  14. I've seen many raving reviews for this story but I just can't make myself pick this up. I know I'd probably love it if I read it, but it still repels me. Glad to see you loved this, Keertana. Wonderful review. :)

  15. I've been wanting to read Sara Zarr for some time now, but of all her books, this is the one that most appeals to me. I think that I'd really relate to this in an odd way (I was adopted, my biological mom was 19), and I love what you said about it being honest and real. I'm one of those sick people who loves an ambiguous ending, and though I'm dead inside/afraid of emotion, there's something really cathartic about a book that can make you cry every so often. Lovely review, Keertana!

  16. Your 5 star reviews are always stunning, Keertana! I haven't read this book yet, but I get the feeling that you have done it justice. I need to pick up something by Sara Zarr soon as I hear nothing but good things from so many friends.

  17. I loved how different these characters were, how their voices sounded completely different, how their stories complemented each other. Sara Zarr did a beautiful job with them and also with the supporting characters. All characters in the book moved the plot forward and helped the protagonists.

    Highly recommended!
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