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How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
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How to Save a Life (edition 2012)

by Sara Zarr

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5015220,341 (4.04)19
Member:Whisper1
Title:How to Save a Life
Authors:Sara Zarr
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Collections:Your library
Rating:****
Tags:Read November 2012, Young Adult

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How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

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It's a jagged thing in my throat, how much I miss her.

This is a sweet, wistful little book, that is completely implausible in concept, but rather deftly written. The basic plot is that Jill's mum takes in a young girl who is pregnant as she (the mum) is going to adopt the baby when it is born, at which point the girl is free to get on with her life. It is pretty much obvious from the beginning that Jill's mum is going to end up adopting the teenager and have them all live together like one big extremely weird happy family.

I felt like everyone was drawn in a bit of a caricature. Jill is officially Not Coping with her dad's death, Mandy (pregnant chick) is super naïve and annoying, Jill's boyfriend is clearly getting less into their relationship, and Jill is clearly falling in love with this other dude. It's all pretty much set out at the start and everyone's issues are resolved in the ways that you would expect in your standard young adult plot. Everyone apart from Mandy is very nice and middle class and utterly respectable.

So why did I enjoy this? I don't know. Having lost my dad at a relatively young age, I'm always interested to find narratives that deal with this kind of sudden death in a realistic setting. I feel that this book did a reasonably competent job of it, though it stuck pretty rigidly to that idea that those grieving will find it difficult to let others in – until it all comes pouring out in one burst, and things start to get better, and that there is a pressure to “hold it together”. This can be true, and often is, and I certainly relate to some of it, but I feel like all too often grief is treated as a monolith, as a fixed object that reduces over time. Instead, it's mostly chaotic, or it was for me. I was largely fine, if extremely teary, after the event. It's only the months and years afterwards that give rise to what grief is, I believe for the majority of people – a shapeshifting monster of a thing that reappears when you least expect it and colours your entire perspective. I'm still grieving, now. My grief was and is anger and pain and misery and depression and anxiety – it was all of these things, differently, sometimes separately and sometimes simultaneously. It was and is not always visible and it doesn't manifest in the ways you would expect. All of this is okay. The number one thing you can expect on the death of a parent is that you are probably not going to be okay. As time goes on, what that means will change and dissipate, but the fundamental thing is that it cannot be undone and the grief does not leave. It just changes with you.

Anyway, to get back to the original point, I feel like this area is touched upon, but for the most part, Jill's grief is a bit of a monolith and I couldn't really engage with it. In the same way, Mandy's nasty background was a bit of a crayon drawing of a nasty background and she is the obvious result of it. The depth was somewhat missing. However, the writing was pretty exemplary, and I feel that's what really holds this story together. It's not reinventing the wheel – not even the YA wheel – but Zarr certainly knows how to put a sentence together and have you grasp the full meaning of it. It's not the just the words she does use, but the words that she pointedly doesn't use, that impress the nature of the characters on to you. And that's no mean feat. I'd definitely read something else by this author despite my slight misgivings about this book. I give How to Save a Life seven out of ten.
  humblewomble | Oct 19, 2014 |
What I thought of when I saw the title: The Fray's How to Save A Life.

Reactive Attachment Disorder is an incredibly sad thing because it's the hallmark of neglect, parental and otherwise, sometimes leading to 'excessive familiarity with relative strangers' to fulfil the all-consuming need for love, attention and affection they've never received. Witnessing Mandy forming unhealthy attachments to people she's just met is excruciating. Once you hear her story, you just want to pull her away from her old life and insecurities, give her a hug, take her home and take care of her and her unborn baby.

I felt for each and every one of the characters. They may not be the most likeable in the world but they're real, complicated and going through terrible times. I understood why each acted as they did: why Jill rejected the notion of her mother adopting a baby so soon after her dad died, why Robin (Jill's mother) wanted to do this and why she didn't go through legal channels to do so, and why Mandy lied so she could find a loving home for her baby to grow up in, thereby preventing her from suffering the same childhood she did and growing up to be like her or her mother.

I sympathised with Jill. Struggling with her identity, redefining herself after her dad's death and figuring out what she wants and who she wants to be is difficult enough, but then having to accept this new person into your life who'll provide you with a baby sister, puts on even more pressure to come to terms with her grief, with her future and the need to move on, embrace life and take risks again.

It's a deeply moving and depressing read, so much so that I was desperate for the predictable happily ever after. Thankfully, I got it. I would've been pretty mad if I hadn't. A new family and a new beginning is formed from the wreckage of four lives, bringing me to tears with the emotive subject matters of abuse, grief and fear for the future and the truly deep and realistic observations in the writing, together with fact that four lives, not one or two, are saved, make this a rare and favourite read. ( )
  Cynical_Ames | Sep 23, 2014 |
"Life is always moving forward, forward, forward. Relentless. If someone offered me a time machine right now and I could go back to before my dad died, I would, of course, if only to see if I could save him. But then I’d want to come right back here, to face the next unknown moment and the next and the next."

Actual Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Brief summary:

Jill MacSweeney's dad died and Robin, her mother, decided to adopt a baby. Robin posted an offer at the site "Love Grows" where she says that she's looking for a heart without a home. Jill's not very much into the idea, though. On the other hand, Mandy's pregnant and she decided to give up her child for adoption and when she saw the post by Robin, she knew she was the right person. When Mandy came into the MacSweeney's house and lives, these people learned to let go and fnally move on. Cliche as it sounds, it didn't came easy.

This was a good coming-of-age book and I liked it but I can't say I enjoyed it much. This was one of those books you like while reading but you'll eventually forget because you'll meet more awesome books along the way. Well, that's my opinion anyway.

The characters:

Jill. I was not exposed to a kind of loss like what she had so I can't really say I understand her. I kind of disliked her because she's just so cynical but mostly, I'm just sad for her.

"I can be human to strangers and coworkers, just not to the people who actually care about me."

She was really pushing away everyone who cares about her. People really makes awful decisions when they're hurt. I guess, you just want everybody to hurt like you.

"And when you can’t stand yourself, you don’t want people around who are constantly saying how much they love you, because you know you don’t deserve it."

Mandy. Err like Jill, I didn't like her at the beginning. I mean, it felt like she was begging other people to love and accept her.

She doesn't feel like she could be a great mom so she wants to find the baby a great mother. You can't give what you don't have.

"I’m happy for my baby, for the life she’ll have.

What I don’t know is how to have this life for myself."

As the story progresses, I find Jill and Mandy matured so much. The author knows how to develop a character, how to make you like them even if they're so unlikable. The readers can't help but sympathize.

The ending:

It was quite predictable but I could say that if it didn't end that way, I'll be terribly disappointed. I am looking forward to reading more of this author's works. ( )
  margaraawr | Aug 8, 2014 |
Interesting book of a teenage girl who's mother decides to take on a girl who is pregnant with an open adoption. Snarkiness abounds as is usual with high school lit but still a different point of view. Buy ( )
  FaithLibrarian | Jun 22, 2014 |
First let me say through out this book I had to wonder if I was reading the same book I read reviews about.

jill is a bitchy teen who lost her father. The closest person to her. trying to get through her last yr of H.S.

Mandy is a troubled girl who got preggo and decided that it would be best if she gave the baby up for adoption.

This book. hmmm. It was VERY boring for me and drawn out. I feel that both characters had potential. but Jill was hard to sympathize with. yes I understand she lost her father. but to treat the world around her like she did pissed me off. She took being a bitchy teen to a whole different level. I understand its hard losing a parent but I dunno she was very hard to like. I made no connection at all.

Mandy. Boy I liked Mandy even less than Jill. Mandy buggged me. she was creepy. she was disturbed. she has issues. I didnt like how she got everything handed to her without having to work for a damn thing. She was whiny. annoying. and very into herself. just not likeable.

Now for the writing. There was no way of telling the characters apart. neither had their own voices. if it wasnt for the different font of each girl I would have NEVER told them apart. Yes the girls had very different personalities but their voices were the same.

I like the story line. I think it had a lot of potential. when I read reviews I thought I was finding a treasure of a book.

I will not give up on Sara Zarr as I have been told to check her out by numerous people, this one book just wasnt my cup of tea. I had no connection to it. ( )
  Courtney_Chance | Jun 19, 2014 |
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I am writing in response to your Love Grows post from Christmas Day.
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I have no concrete plans for seeing the world and don't know how I'd come up with them without his advice, and when I picture myself moving out, it doesn't feel like a bold adventure. It feels like running away. Because all I can see is the part where I leave, not the part where I arrive.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0316036064, Hardcover)


Author One-on-One: Jenny Han Interviews Sara Zarr
Jenny Han

Author Jenny Han recently sat down with Sara Zarr to discuss her latest novel, How to Save a Life.

Jenny Han: In my humble opinion, this is the best book you’ve written thus far. I loved it. I know we authors don’t like to play favorites with our book babies, but do you feel that way, too?

Sara Zarr: Thanks, Jenny! I have to admit‚ I do have extra-warm feelings for this book. Some of that is because the writing of it felt so good, relative to the experience of writing my other books. Still hard work, certainly, but enjoyable hard work. I don’t have to tell you that not every book feels that way. Also, I had a very definite sense while writing it that I was undergoing some kind of change and growth as a writer, and that felt good. I’m proud of it as a work, and it will also always symbolize, to me, that period of exciting change and growth.

Han: Did you do any kind of research on adoption?

Zarr: I did. I poked around adoption websites and message boards, and I had to look up some information on laws in the states where the story takes place. The specific circumstances under which Jill’s mom and Mandy find each other has a whiff of “gray market” about it, which didn’t lend itself to research. So I had to imagine and assume it would be entirely possible, as I know people will go to great lengths and push boundaries in the process of creating a family.

Han: Did you plan all along to tell the story from both Mandy’s and Jill’s perspectives?

Sara Zarr

Zarr: When I first started the book, it was Jill’s story. But as soon as I finished Jill’s first chapter, in which she and her mother are waiting for the train that’s bringing Mandy to them, I knew that I wanted to be on that train, too. I wanted to know what brought Mandy to that moment of leaving home, and what she’d think of her new life in Denver and of Jill.

Han: Mandy moved me very much. There is an innocence to her, but also a sharpness, a manipulativeness. She reminded me of an unwanted puppy that’s thrown into a lake but claws its way back to the surface. Where did you get your inspiration for Mandy?

Zarr: That’s a great description and metaphor for Mandy. She came to me slowly. I know this sounds like one of those weirdo writer things—I just sort of got on the train with her and watched. It took me quite a bit longer to figure her out than it took me to know Jill. At first Mandy was more manipulative, less innocent. I saw her as a type, or as a character. Which, as you know, is not the best way to approach the people we’re creating, but sometimes that’s where you have to start. As her story came to me in pieces, I could see how her experience had made her both strong and vulnerable, and that anything she did that seemed manipulative was simply out of this will to survive that she’d been honing since birth.

Han: Is there one character you related to most deeply?

Zarr: I think anyone who knows me well will recognize where a lot of Jill’s personality comes from. Jill is a lot like me when—well, I hate to say “when I’m at my worst,” because I don’t think that’s fair to Jill. Let’s just say that I understand Jill and why she sometimes treats people who care about her in the shabby way that she does. That said, I also deeply felt Mandy’s longing for safety, for home, for some kind of faith that things are going to be okay. Both Mandy and Jill want those things. Probably everyone does.

Han: What's next for you after this?

Zarr: I’m working on a new novel right now. All I can say is that it’s my usual—contemporary realism—and that the process is challenging me in every possible way. I hope in a year to be able to say that I met those challenges successfully!

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:00:35 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Told from their own viewpoints, seventeen-year-old Jill, in grief over the loss of her father, and Mandy, nearly nineteen, are thrown together when Jill's mother agrees to adopt Mandy's unborn child but nothing turns out as they had anticipated.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 2 descriptions

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