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.