Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Review: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Title: How to Save a Life
Author: Sara Zarr
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release date: October 30th 2012
Pages: 341
Genre: Contemporary YA
Source: Bough
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Jill MacSweeney just wants everything to 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. You can't lose one family member and simply replace him with a new one, and when her mom decides to adopt a baby, that's exactly what it feels like she's trying to do. And that's decidedly not normal. With her world crumbling around her, can Jill come to embrace a new member of the family?
Mandy Kalinowski knows 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, she knows she wants a better life for her baby. But can giving up a child be as easy as it seems? And will she ever be able to find someone to care for her, too?
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Sara Zarr is one of my all-time favorite authors, and How to Save a Life proved to me once again why. It's so full of emotions, equal parts love and tragedy. It's real, honest, and beautiful, and I loved it.

What's best about this book are, of course, the characters. Neither Jill nor Mandy are easy to like, but that's because they're real - we are right inside their heads, and like with real people, we don't always like what we see. Jill is - she's a bitch, it's that simple. She has amazing people in her life, but she's angry, and she's treating everyone who's trying to help her like crap. There were so many scenes where I just wanted to slap her, but in the end, I did grow to love her. Ever since her dad's died, she's been angry and insecure, lashing out at everyone around her. But once her vulnerability started to show, I wanted to take her into my arms and never let her go.

Mandy is a character completely different from Jill; Sara Zarr did a great job distinguishing these two voices from one another. Mandy is unlike any character I've ever read about; I don't even know how to describe. She's naive, innocent, and vulnerable in a way that made me simultaneously want to cry at the horror of what she's been through, slap everyone that hasn't been there for her, and - like with Jill - take her into my arms and never let her go. There is something about her innocent way of seeing the world that is both heartbreaking and beautiful.

I love how much How to Save a Life focuses on family - I always appreciate when the rare YA book addresses that. But this novel isn't just about family in the biological sense; in the author's note, Sara Zarr talks about the recurring theme in her books of family made up of the people you choose to be close to, and it's apparent in How to Save a Life that she succeeded in communicating this message. I love the way the characters grow together in this novel; the way the relationships develop is honest and real, and it's simply beautiful to read about. Especially the ending made me want to laugh and cry and just live, all at the same time. How to Save a Life just made a complete mess of my emotions.

I don't even know what to say; this is simply an amazing book. Evocative in really any emotion you could think of, with simple but stark writing and rich and unique characterization, How to Save a Life is a new favorite of mine. I can't recommend it enough.


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