How to Save a Life

By Sara Zarr

Sara_ZarrSara Zarr’s 2010 young adult novel, Once Was Lost, features Samara, a PK (preacher’s kid) who thinks she has faith all figured out until her dysfunctional family falls apart and her quiet hometown experiences a tragedy. Then, Samara must learn to love and accept imperfect parents and an imperfect and questioning self. I loved the way the novel dealt with faith questions without over-simplifying or stereotyping the Christian characters.

I wondered if Zarr might continue with the explicitly Christian characters in her latest YA novel, How To Save a Life, but she doesn’t. Two girls, Mandy and Jill, tell the story in alternating chapters, and that first-person/two-narrators technique works well for a story that’s essentially about two people from very different backgrounds coming to trust, love, and understand each other.

Jill is an upper-middle-class, pierced-to-the-hilt child of privilege whose mother is a liberal career woman do-gooder with a heart for giving to others. As the book opens, Jill and her mother, Robin, are grieving the fairly recent death of Jill’s father, Mac, and Robin has made a momentous decision: to participate in an open adoption and give a home to a child in need. Mandy, the unmarried teen mother, will be coming to live at Jill’s house to complete the last few weeks of her pregnancy. Jill thinks her mom is insane, and she really misses her dad’s level-headed, curmudgeonly ways right about now.

When Mandy arrives on the scene, the story continues in Mandy’s voice for a while, and we learn that while Mandy may not fit Jill’s preconceived stereotypes, she certainly has some growing up of her own to do. Jill’s abrasiveness is a function of heredity (taking after her dad) and grief (for her dad), while Mandy has learned the art of passive resistance from interacting with her verbally abusive mother.

The two girls’ personalities mix like oil and water, and there’s also the new baby to think about. Does Jill have the ability to overcome her misgivings about the adoption and become a loving older sister? Does Mandy really want to give up the only thing that’s ever been completely hers, her own baby?

The issues the story raises about adoption, trust, differences in socioeconomic backgrounds, parenting, and grieving are all well-integrated into the narrative and thought-provoking. I especially liked the depictions of the differences in Mandy’s and Jill’s economic expectations. Jill tells Mandy at one point in the book, “Money’s never been a problem in this family.” But for Mandy, money has been and is a big problem. It’s a cultural gap that is only partially bridged by the end of the novel, but it was good to see teens working through something that is rarely explored in YA novels.

On the other hand, I hated the fact that Jill and her boyfriend just had to fall into bed together as an expected and natural part of their reconciliation, about a third of the way through the novel. I’m not saying it’s not realistic for them to do so in today’s culture, and the sex scene isn’t explicit nor is it a big part of the story. But I hate giving young adult readers the unspoken message that “everybody does it” and it’s no big deal.

Since I read in a blog interview with Zarr that she is a Christian and that “most of what [she writes] does not directly incorporate faith, but all of it is written from [her] Christian worldview,” I expected to see that worldview in How To Save a Life. And I did. Although the dual narrators, Jill and Mandy, are explicitly non-religious, each of them comes to a place of change in her life that seems almost impossible apart from the hand of God. It’s as if, similar to the Book of Esther, God is at work in the background even though none of the characters in the book acknowledges Him or overtly calls on Him. Or maybe I’m just reading that sense of divine intervention into the narrative, since I was looking for it all along.

Either way, mature readers, both Christian and non-Christian, should see themselves in both Mandy and Jill as they struggle to change and trust each other across an economic and cultural gap that threatens to overwhelm their tentative and flawed attempts at understanding.

Image copyright Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Review copy from the reviewer's personal collection.

Sherry Early is a Christian homeschooling mother of eight, founder and editor of the book blog Semicolon, and author of Picture Book Preschool.

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