Sara Zarr is probably best known for Story of a Girl, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2007. It was followed by Sweethearts, my favorite Zarr book out of the two, as it details the friendship of teenagers Jennifer and Cam. But now my favorite Zarr book has been replaced by her yet-to-be-released How to Save a Life. The novel will be published in January, and I was able to fly through an ARC that I really couldn’t put it down.
How to Save a Life is told through the dual perspectives of Jill MacSweeney and Mandy Kalinowski, two teenagers whose lives are pushed together at the beginning of the novel. Mandy answers a post on a message board left by Jill’s mother, Robin, who is looking for a baby to adopt. Jill’s father, her mother’s husband, recently died in a car crash. Both Jill’s dad and mom had been looking to adopt a new baby, even though they are both in their early fifties and already have a daughter, seventeen-year-old Jill. After her husband dies, Jill’s mom decides to go ahead with adoption, which leads to her discovery of Mandy, a pregnant teenager desperate to find a loving family for her baby, due in just a few weeks. Although Jill seems to initially disagree with her mother’s choice to adopt, the imperceptible revealing of information about Jill’s mother throughout the book also offers an interesting character study. What seems like a whim, the choice to adopt a baby, initially makes Jill’s mother seem almost immature, yet, her competence, intelligence, and caring nature are slowly revealed as the story unravels, a subtle part of the novel that builds towards a much greater impact.
Although the situation is necessary to explaining how Jill and Mandy enter one another’s lives, this book is really about them. The story and situation is compelling from both of their perspectives, but this novel reads more as a character study, a brief stay with two important people. And what is effective about both of them is that they have character traits that make them so unlikeable at times. For instance, the first glimpse of Mandy that the reader gets is of her journey by train to Denver, Colorado, where she is going to stay with Jill and her mother for the weeks until her baby is born. This small chapter shows her cycling the advice about men her mother has passed onto her, most of which greatly hints at the life that Mandy is leaving behind. When she sits next to a man on the train, she reflects, “I close my eyes and imagine him watching me, wondering about me, thinking how pretty I am while I sleep. My mother says men like to see you like that. In sleep you look vulnerable, and it makes them want to take care of you.” These reflections are cringe-worthy, as is Mandy’s insistence that Jill will not like her because her mother has always emphasized the competitiveness between women to her daughter. Yet as the novel goes on and the reader spends more and more time with Mandy – especially as she wanders throughout the MacSweeney house during the day, when Jill and her mother are at school and work – she starts to seem more like a real person. The unlikeable nature that has been built into her character begins to pull away, enacting an overwhelming empathy for Mandy. Halfway through, Mandy thinks:
"There’s a daydream I’ve had ever since I was little. I don’t know where it comes from – maybe I saw something like it in a movie or on TV, or maybe I read it in a book. Except I haven’t read very many books so that’s probably not it. Maybe I thought it up all on my own. In it I live in a log cabin by a small lake, and on the other side of the lake is another log cabin, exactly like mine. A perfect square. A man lives in it, and he carves tiny animals out of wood. For me. A bear, a deer, a raccoon. And puts them in a boat to float them to my side of the lake. I can never think what to send back, because I don’t have anything, but I’m never lonely. Every time I walk out of the cabin door and look across my lake, he’s there on his porch, carving. Water and wildflowers between us, but we’re still together.
"The baby will always have Robin. Jill, too, even though now she acts like she doesn’t care. She will. In a way the baby will have me, also. I’ll be like the man in the cabin across the lake, and for once I can be the one sending things across – letters, money, presents – and the baby won’t have to send anything back. I can give and give and give and never have to take, because I won’t really be the mother. We won’t fight like mothers and daughters do. I won’t be able to hurt her or mess up her life with my bad decisions. For instance if I pick the wrong boyfriend, it won’t affect her, and I won’t be able to make her feel bad about herself; she’ll always be protected by the space between us."
Mandy is paired with Jill, who is overcoming experiences of her own. She is left reeling after the death of her father, unable to move on since his passing almost a year ago. She finds herself isolated and alone after pushing her friends and her boyfriend away, relying on the space that her job at a bookstore creates for her, a built-in community and place to go. Mandy moving into Jill’s house doesn’t make any sense to her. Jill is angry at her mother for thinking that adopting a new baby will help them move on, and her bitterness and hurt makes things tense in the household. But when she meets Ravi Desai at work, a nineteen-year-old who has been hired to investigate thefts at the bookstore, she quickly convinces him to investigate another mystery: why Mandy is so willing to give up her baby and move to Denver to be with Jill and her mother.
This book hooked me the second that I read a perspective from both Mandy and Jill. I don’t think I can recommend this book highly enough, and with a publication date next month, it’s not far away from being available! Jill and Mandy and their story stuck with me for a while after I was finished the novel, and now I’m doubling back to read Sara Zarr’s third novel, Once Was Lost, because I’m really enjoying the stories that she tells.