How To Save a Life by Sara Zarr | Book Review

Book cover of How To Save a Life by Sara Zarr
How To Save a Life by Sara Zarr
Publisher: Little, Brown Books For Young Readers
Format: Hardcover
Genre: Contemporary, Young Adult
Publication Date: 18 October, 2011
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 really wanted to love this book...REALLY wanted to. It has all the elements of my favorite contemporaries: a character with a mysterious past, characters who are aching, all parties have questionable intentions, and it all comes together in a seemingly odd, yet interesting, way. But in the end, it was more of a middle-of-the-road, book.

I think the one thing that gave me the most negative impression was the daughter, Jill. I didn't much care for her attitude or judgments. I didn't like the way she used those around her to her advantage, even when she knew it would hurt them. Part of this is that she a.) is a spunky teen with an attitude, b.) is dealing with the loss of her father. I get that. I just didn't care for a lot of the things she said and did, and I was honestly bothered by how the people around her kept forgiving her and coming back, only to be used again.

What I did like about the book--really liked--were the chapters from Mandy's point of view. I liked her deep thoughts, and her odd view of the world. It was as if I was discovering this new environment along with her, and I loved getting to see how the smallest things could make such a difference to her. I liked watching her relationship with Jill's mom grow. And I admit that I did find the contrast between Mandy's discovery and wonderment, and Jill's chapters that were full of angst and drama, added a little something to the story, even if I didn't agree with everything Jill did.

Aside from all that, the book explores relationships in a deep way. It delves into family ties, and redefines the definition. It also bravely approaches the subject of teenage love and friendship, in a way that is almost taboo for YA. I don't want to spoil anything for anyone, so even though I don't believe this is a huge spoiler (although you may), consider this your *Spoiler Warning* >>I really appreciate that the point is made, that love between two people doesn't always mean that those people should be together.<< *End Spoiler*

In the end, I enjoyed the mystery and drama, but I wanted something more from the book. The ending was just a little too neatly tied up for me, but it did make me feel the warm fuzzies, so I can't complain too much. I really liked Sara Zarr's writing style though, so I'll definitely be reading more of her books.

If you like reading about off characters (Mandy is awesome), or characters with a chip on their shoulder, you'll enjoy this one.

TRF Fever Meter
Temp. Guide
Read this if:
...you enjoy family dramas, and you like to explore the deeper meaning of relationships.

Content Warning
*This section may contain some spoilers about content!*
Highlight between the brackets to reveal the text.
{Sex (not descriptive), some swearing, and sexual abuse that takes place before the story begins (although the subject is handled very well, and is not descriptive).}

Purchase How To Save a Life:
Sara Zarr:
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  1. Sorry you didn't love it! I need to read a Sara Zarr book.

  2. Too bad this one didn't work as well for you. I think this has the tidiest ending of all of Sara Zarr's books. It's funny how people like different things, because I warmed up to Jill a lot sooner than Mandy. (The whole part with her and the guy on the train made me feel so uncomfortable for her.)
    I always recommend Sweethearts as my favorite of Sara Zarr's books, but I think most people like Once Was Lost the best.

  3. I'm sorry that you didn't love this one. I liked both Jill and Mandy, but, like Kathy, I warmed up to Jill faster than I did to Mandy. I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of the two girls and their very different world views - even if the ending was very tidy.

    This is my second favorite Sara Zarr, with ONCE WAS LOST taking first place.

  4. I think we felt mostly the same about this one. You expressed those thoughts much better than me. :) I though Jill was rather angsty in an annoying way through most of the book and the loss of her father wasn't excuse enough for me. That may make me sound horrible but I lost my dad when I was really young and I didn't turn into that so...yeah. Anywho, I thought Mandy was weird at first but then I ended up liking her a lot. The ending was way too neat, in my opinion.

  5. I liked the ending. I like that it was resolved the way I thought it should be but not the way I expected it to be, if that makes sense.

    Also, I found both girls hard to warm up to, so the fact that at the end, I appreciated them both really worked for me.

    Glad to read a contrasting review, though!

  6. I loved this book. I really appreciate the author's writing style which is more sparse and does not cater to melodrama. I liked that the mother in the book was flawed and not one-note; she had her own story arc. I actually loved the ending, and thought that was a cool shift in the story. I understand how Jill was abrasive, but I connected to her. If she'd been much more abrasive, like the kid from Going Bovine, I might have had a problem.

    I enjoyed Zarr's Sweethearts, too.

  7. I could relate to both Mandy and Jill and I just adore the way that the characters develop. I got super attached to Mandy and Jill and Jill's mother.
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