Books, YA Fiction

How To Save A Life, by Sara Zarr


5 Stars

“It’s just so out of control. Life, I mean. The way it flies off in all these different directions without your permission.”

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.

I have no idea why I picked this book up. Teen pregnancies in books, television, or movies are something I don’t want to deal with, especially when loss of a loved one is thrown into the mix. I guess I was in a depressing mood that day at the school library (as always), or I needed something desperately to read (as always). But, Sara Zarr has proven to me that some of the most overdone subjects can always be turned into a heartbreaking and realistic piece of work when in the hands of a good writer. How To Save A Life was exceptional.

The entirety of the novel was utterly honest and sincere. It is not a heavy book, as one would expect. Although the novel revolves around a dark concept, the story in itself seemed almost quiet with an emotional but uplifting undertone. The writing is pretty clean, it’s not flowery, but rather raw and pure.

In my opinion, the characters are the best part of the novel. Mandy and Jill are very relatable in their inner conflicts, personality, and dealing with grief and loneliness. I could connect to Jill almost instantly. She’s sardonic, blunt, and just tragic. After her father’s death, you can tell that she wants to be honest with everything she does. She takes crap from nobody, but is still confused with what she wants and who she wants in her life. She feels both guilty and unapologetic for pushing away the people who care about her, but doesn’t know how to ease the sadness while (badly) dealing with her boyfriend, mother, and Mandy. I thought Jill’s character development and overall character was very well done. Her voice is distinct and shows that a person can go off into a mix of directions when trying to handle a difficult situation. Mandy was a little harder for me to connect with, but by the end of the book, I ended up liking her more than Jill. Mandy’s main problem is dealing with flat-out loneliness. While Jill tries to cope with her fear of intimacy and loving someone again, Mandy has never been exposed to any sort of love in her life, and often has false interpretations of real love. In the beginning, Mandy can be portrayed as a needy, nosy, and even creepy girl, as she can be seen as a little unsettling and weird. But, throughout the story we realize that she needs someone to actually care about her, and make her not feel like a mistake or a burden.

The side characters are also very well done. They aren’t used as plot devices, but they actually serve a purpose of their own and contribute to the protagonists’ character development. Although they have smaller roles in the story, they add a certain dynamic to the story which makes the book as a whole really special. I adored Dylan and Ravi, they kept this book afloat with comic relief, and provided a painful undertone as well. I thought both the love interests were very fleshed out and realistic, and I feel every bit of their struggle. I think Zarr explored the mix of sadness and love very well, because the romance was absolutely heartbreaking and honest. There is a constant push and pull between Jill and her love interest, because both of them didn’t hold anything back and poured themselves into each other. The base of the romance lies in honesty, empathy, and just needing someone to be there for you.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book for anyone looking for a raw YA contemporary. How To Save A Life is definitely a book I’ll remember for a long time.