Monday, October 10, 2011

Book Review: How to Save a Life, by Sara Zarr

How to Save a Life is a compelling contemporary that tackles two issues -- grieving the loss of a parent and dealing with teenage pregnancy -- with incredible insight. This review may be a bit longer than my usual, because I have a lot to say about this book.

Our first main character, Jill, is mourning the death of her father less than a year ago. She was very close to her father, and hasn't been able to bond with her mother since his death, has lost her friends and boyfriend, and believes that something is wrong with her.

To complicate matters, Jill's mother has decided to adopt a baby. She's found a teen mother who has requested an open adoption--no lawyers or paperwork of any kind. When this teen, Mandy, comes to live with Jill and her mother for the last term of her pregnancy, Jill has a hard time dealing with it.

Let's take Jill first. No one has told her that the grief process is a personal thing and that everyone grieves differently. Her friends and loved ones keep wanting her to talk about it. She's just not ready, and therefore has alienated everyone.I can't really quote the book since it's an ARC, but Jill's inner self-talk is fascinating and spot-on. After much struggle, she finally realizes that she will never be the person she was when her father was alive. She realizes that she must create a new Jill that can find happiness in this new situation. The road to this realization is painful; there is no epiphany. I think I liked this aspect of the story even more than the pregnancy issue. But without Mandy, Jill would not have healed in the way she did.

Mandy's issue, of course, is her doubts about giving away her baby. Once again, the inner dialog that Zarr writes for this character is astoundingly realistic. She talks and talks to herself to get through this day by day.

The characterizations are what make this book special. Zarr has written teen characters that are so realistic  you want to jump in the book and give your advice to help these kids through this difficult time. The slow-building friendship between Jill and Mandy as they begin to connect their very different worlds was handled with precision and delicacy. The secondary characters, Jill's boyfriend and her new friend Ravi, are essential to the resolution for both of these girls.

The only down side of the book is a somewhat far-fetched premise -- Jill's mom wanting so badly to adopt such a short time after her husband's death. I also thought the ending was---hmmm--how do I want to say this---let's just call it "unlikely." I don't want to give away anything -- not even whether this ends tragically or happily (so be careful what other reviews you read.) I'm telling you that these issues are totally forgivable. Don't let this stop you from getting to know these characters.

This book is emotional. It makes you hurt -- for all of these characters. It makes you want to cry out and help them somehow. The writing is nothing short of spectacular. Teen girls who like contemporary issues books will adore this book. I can't wait to recommend it to them.

P.S. I really got a chuckle out of the book store that Jill worked at. It's called "Margins." Get it? Borders = Margins!

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers, October 18, 2011
Review ARC obtained from NetGalley
352 pages (qualifies for my 350 Page Book Challenge!)

Rating: 4.5/5

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  1. I want to read this book sooo much!

  2. Sounds fabulous. I love that Jill's inner monologue is so spot-on. I wasn't sure about it when I read the blurb but I'm totally going to have to check this one out!

  3. I loved getting to know both of these characters. There are wonderful friendships in this novel, a hopeful romance, and a fantastic mother figure, but it was these two young women and their strength that have inspired me to recommend this novel.
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