Choosing Life: Review of How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

I just got to read an incredible book by an incredible author. I’ve been a fan of Sara Zarr‘s work since I reviewed her novel Once Was LostAnd I am going to have the amazing good fortune of getting to meet her at The Writing Barn next month for an advanced writing workshop that she’s offering on emotional pacing.

Sara Zarr is an important writer, I’m just going to say it. She writes about teens struggling with some really tough issues, and she does it with such grace, compassion, and integrity. I am grateful for all the authors who try to write about kids in tough situations. And I will be the first to acknowledge that writing is REALLY HARD. But Zarr manages to understand and love her teen protagonists and that is not easy, but it’s so necessary.

Anyway, I think that anyone who works with teens should add How to Save a Life to their collection.

From the Jacket:

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.

Review: I don’t know that I’m going to be able to capture what makes this book so special because it hit really close to home on a lot of levels. But here are the stats, at least: this book deal with sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect, teen pregnancy, and death of a parent. I thought that one of her two teen protagonists was slightly better developed than the other, but the family dynamics between the mother and daughter are spot on.

OK, so there’s that. But we all bring ourselves and our bags to the reading of any book, and I couldn’t help reading this book as someone who has both lost a parent and has grown up in a household where I was abused and unwanted. I related to both of her protagonists. But here’s what makes this great fiction and important: I didn’t just recognize these young women–I learned from them.

I was Jill, who has lost her father, when she lashes out at her friends and pushes them away. I was Mandy when she reaches out repeatedly to a young man on the train who has no interest in knowing her because she just can’t help herself, we all want love. But I also learned from Jill that I, too, am afraid of everything since my Mom died, and I learned that the best way to heal and stop being afraid is to start, bit by bit, to let new life in. And I learned from Mandy that I am not the only person who secretly wants a do-over–a new life with a family who will want me this time.

And another thing: Jill keeps thinking back to the time before her dad died when she was happy and lively and fearless and she keeps wanting to somehow recapture that girl and become her again. And I’ve done that. I remember when I was about nine and I was fearless and the leader of the neighborhood pack because I was the toughest ever (I was actually an awesome little kid, seriously.) And I wonder why I can’t get back to that spirit? And then Jill finally realizes: she’s never going to be that girl again. There is no going back. She doesn’t have to be sad and scared for the rest of her life, but there is no going back to what she was, only forward to what she can be now. And I thought: oh yeah, that’s right. That’s how it works.

Maybe these things are all obvious to other people, but I just thought her journey was so real and so hopeful. It was subtle and understated, but it was just exactly how life does work, and I found it so personally relevant that I know that actual live teens in the real world going through these things will read this book as a revelation.

It just amazes me, frankly, that there are writers who can do this. I mean, I’ve met Katherine Paterson, and hundreds of other amazing writers, for that matter. So I know these demi-Gods exist. But here I am with all this life experience and compassion and at least a decent dollop of true writing talent, but I can’t even finish finish a novel–at least not yet–much less honestly capture these deep and nuanced emotional experiences on the page. I guess I’m just profoundly glad that there are writers who can. Cheers, y’all!

UPDATE: Just wanted to add another review and an interview about the book with Sara Zarr over at The Pirate Tree. They’re doing great work over there. Go check them out!


About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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6 Responses to Choosing Life: Review of How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

  1. Susan Lea says:

    Will have to read some books by Sara Zarr. Between talking to you, my former students and a dozen other reasons, I’ve been thinking about going back to work with teens, but outside the public school system. Thinking about working at facilities for JDs. One of my students did that for some years but is burnt out right now. Enjoying your posts.

  2. pamwatts says:

    I’ve worked with that demographic, Susan, and I can see why she’d(/he’d?) be burned out. It’s really hard to be there daily for kids who have messed up so much and who have had so much crap piled on them and know that there is barely anything at all that you can really do. It sucks. Maybe part of why I keep this blog is that it does feel like something I can do that refreshes me and makes me feel good without also really really burning me out. But it’s not much. Sigh.

  3. L. Marie says:

    I’m sorry to admit I’ve never read a Sara Zarr book even though so many people at VCFA recommended her so highly. Will have to rectify that right away. I envy your going to the Writing Barn too and meeting her.

  4. pamwatts says:

    Heck, I envy me, too. And you should pick up one of her books. She’s great. And I am sorry, but I can’t figure out who you are. Were we at VCFA together?

    • L. Marie says:

      I’m writing my blog under a pen name, because that’s the name I’m using for my fantasy series. And yes, you’ve seen me at VCFA. Email me at lmarie7b(at)gmail(dot)com and I’ll tell you who I am. (Mystery . . . . ooooo)

  5. Pingback: Never Invite a Normal Person to Your Graduation! | Strong in the Broken Places

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