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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Book Review: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

SUMMARY: Jill MacSweeny 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.

Critically acclaimed author and National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr delivers a heart-wrenching story, told from dual perspectives, about the many roads that can lead us home.


The Short Version:
Gutting and emotional, How to Save a Life is a beautifully woven tale of grief and new beginnings. With a dual perspective between two opposing characters, both stunningly done in their characterization and development, there is an alluring, engaging, and poignant narrative to this book. Holding some wrenching and heartbreaking moments, and with a fantastic story line, How to Save a Life is brilliant and striking.

The Extended Version:
Jill is the kind of character who has plenty of flaws, ones she is both aware of and blind to, but they are built into her character so seamlessly that the reason for each reaction is easy to understand, yet no single thing is easily pinpointed as a direct cause/effect. Her sorrow and anger over her father’s death is palpable and painful, and the effect it’s had on her both emotionally and personality wise are jarring. Pushing away the people close to her, and bitter towards things that she knows shouldn’t affect her, Jill is a poignantly done and highly relatable character. Her frustration even towards herself not only helps readers understand her side, but will make them want to root for her.

Mandy is somewhat of a mess, definitely a product of her upbringing and someone who has had a hard road in life. She is definitely a little off in some ways, and her views on things is different than not only Jill’s but what many readers might share as well. Regardless, she is just as easy to rally behind as Jill’s character, creating a fantastic dissociation and mixed feelings for the readers. With a bold determination in her, and a strong sense of trying to figure out her own way in this world, Mandy is a phenomenally well done character.

Adding to the amazing cast is Jill’s mother, a woman who is grieving in her own way but who is also resolute in moving forward and having someone to care for. Loyal to her daughter, but not necessarily at the expense of herself, and trusting and understanding of Mandy, she is also a character readers will sympathize with. Dylan, Jill’s boyfriend, is a gentle soul, who tries his best to be there for her and understand what she is going through, yet also is unable to just brush off the sometimes cruel way in which she treats him. Making a few choices of his own that will challenge readers, and having a strong presence throughout, Dylan is a great compliment to this cast. Rounding things out is Ravi, a guy a few years older than Jill who used to go to her school, now cropped back up in her life. Making her feel new things, and giving her something more to look forward to in her days, the changes he inspires not only in her but the choices she makes as well.

A very character driven book, made more in depth by the two, dueling perspectives, the plot is perfectly paced and engaging from the start. With both heavily emotional and humorous and fun scenes, there is a great mix of feelings and backdrops throughout this one. Though there are several subplots, Zarr keeps things on track for the main point without jumping off track for too long. Bringing in some thought-provoking elements, and unflinching in its honesty, this one pulls in as many internal, personal moments as bigger picture ones.

The writing is gorgeous, with two very distinct voices for Jill and Mandy and a smooth narrative style tying them together. Smoothly transitioned between chapters, and building both characters in a positive and negative light, Zarr’s talent and natural skill at writing shines. With beautiful descriptions and new ways to view things, there is a constant emotional air to this one.

Holding plenty of elements that will make readers think, and with a well developed, stellar cast of characters, How to Save a Life is a breathtaking must read of a novel. With characters who are fully fleshed, flawed but filled with hope and promise, and subtle intricacies and relationships between them, this one will engage and grip readers. With an addictive quality, and a strong emotional connection, How to Save a Life is impossible to put down or forget about even after the last page.

Source: ARC received at ALA 
Reading Level: 14 and up
Hardcover: 352 pages 
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication Date:  October 18, 2011


  1. Great review! I have this one on my shelf and after reading your review I need to move it up my TBR pile. This sounds like my kind of book!

  2. I loved Jill and Ravi so much alkjsalkjdsalkjkdslsdjksjlkj!!!! and Mandy's voice was the part that really captivated me here... I don't think I've ever read a character written quite like her. The scene when we're introduced to her on the bus with that guy... omg. it made me squirm and yearn for more. I LOVE this book.