Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: How to Save a Life

"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?

Critically acclaimed author and National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr delivers a heart-wrenching story, told from dual perspectives, about what it means to be a family and the many roads we can take to become one."


  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Date of release: Oct. 18, 2011
  • Number of pages: 341
  • Unique elements: Told from the perspective of two girls with extremely different lives
  • Would appeal to: Fans of Saving June, fans of Sarah Ockler

Favorite Quotes:

"Her eyes are ice blue, light and clear, the kind of eyes you see on certain sheepdogs."

"There might be a pair [of gloves] in my messenger bag, but it's too dark and deserted to be standing around digging in my bag like a perfect target, asking to be bludgeoned."

"On Sunday, I wake up after noon, and if I weren't starving, I would pull the covers back over my head and stay here in my death spiral of self-loathing."

"It's comforting, in a way, to know that just because we had a moment yesterday doesn't mean every conversation has to turn into an emotional root canal."

"'He's not that tough. He won't even go into a 7-Eleven if there's a homeless person out front.'"

Families come in all shapes and sizes. We can't choose what family we're born into. Both Jill and Mandy, the story's alternating narrators, know this well.

Jill is pretty moody and rude to her mom. I'd expect that of a person who has lost a father who was just like her in personality. Her mom is also over fifty and about to adopt a baby without having signed any legal paperwork. Her life pretty much sucks, she thinks, but don't worry: there aren't exaggerated pity-party scenes.

Mandy faces her own downward spiral. She's 18, pregnant, a high school dropout. She longs for the trust that Jill's mom, Robin, has conveyed over the internet. She wants a good home for her child, so she packs up and leaves behind a home where her mom mostly cares about looks and her mom's boyfriend is not a nice man. Mandy is extremely naive and lacks people skills but also has a whimsical opinion of love. Her character has a distinct prose style and I was never confused about which of the girls POVs I was reading. Mostly, I felt sorry for Mandy, as it seemed she would be better suited for life in an earlier era (her beliefs/style had a lot to do with how she was raised though). Mandy understood specific types of crying, like the quiet kind that lasts for hours or the gut-wrenching kind that makes you want to throw up.

The romance in this book was pretty good, I must say. Even though I could have done with a little more, real life isn't always like that. The romance that is present is not overdone. I could feel Jill's anticipation while she was working a shift at Margins, waiting to see someone she didn't realize she had feelings for. As far as details, I've had enough of electrifying tingles running-up-the-arm in recent YA. This had anything but mundane descriptions.

The relationship of a comfortable, long-time couple is explored-- Jill and Dylan. Jill can be separated into two personalities; before her dad died and after. Even though Dylan is the guy who's remained loyal through a couple of breakups, they both realize they're growing apart. There is nothing wrong with Dylan. I thought he was quite considerate. It was an interesting choice that he wore eyeliner, but it's reflective of the times and it made his face stand out in my mind (just like the liner:)

I loved Ravi. Indian descent (so refreshing!). Admirer from afar. Trying to be all grown-up with his loss prevention job. Jill constantly has the urge to spill all these personal details when she's around him, something she can't do with Dylan. I mostly think of Ravi as a gentle intellectual. The author uses an old recurring yearbook first mentioned by Ravi to help Jill realize she's become another person than the smiling sophomore on its pages. In fact, she's kind of a cool person when he's around. 

What I enjoyed most about this story is that Zarr takes the ordinary and breathes life into it. Working in retail is no cup of tea, and although their weren't grumpy customers, I smiled at the mention of secret shoppers and closing early. What could have been boring exposition on high school classes were livened up with lunch scenes and bits like Dylan's band being called the Potato Rebellion. The syntax never felt awkward or un-teen-like. From Mandy's man-pleasing obsessed mother to awkward thirty-something Alex on the train, even the secondary characters were three-dimensional. 

It was extremely easy to relate to pieces of each girl's story, even though the girls themselves were complete opposites. The back and forth narration added to the depth of the story, as readers see two worlds collide and work out their differences. I had a hard time putting this one down because I needed to know the direction in which the plot was headed. I was a little nervous at the first sign of Mandy wanting to not give up her baby.

If you're looking for a contemporary read with personality, How to Save a Life is the book to pick up (plus, at random times thoughout your reading, the song "How to Save a Life" by The Fray will pop into your head).

*Thank you to Hachette Book Group, who provided me with a review copy in exchange for an honest opinion. 


Giselle said...

Oh wow I had no idea what this bok really was about before. I saw the cover but it never made me check it out. Maybe because I hate winter!? Haha. It sounds interesting though and definitely original. I love the idea of dual narrations I usually connect with the characters a lot more that way.

Xpresso Reads

Deb said...

Very good review, Jenna! I'm just reading this one and I really like it, as well. Stopping by from one of the reading challenges or giveaways, I can't remember which, actually! LOL So many going on right now. But, I wanted to see your blog and glad I did. We have many books in common on our reading or TBR list.
Happy Thanksgiving! I'm a new followers.