***** (5 stars)
I finished How To Save A Life on the 2nd January, making it my first book of 2013. Donna sent me this a few months back but for some reason it lay on the shelf for a while – I suppose I just didn’t feel in quite the right mood for it, but I should have trusted her judgement and jumped right on it when it popped through my letterbox as I loved it. It was a perfect YA novel – easy to read with believable characters, absorbing and thought-provoking. Yes, the issues it covers (bereavement and teenage pregnancy) have been “done” before (although perhaps not necessarily at the same time) but How To Save A Life provided a fresh take on these (near-)universal experiences.
How To Save A Life is told by characters Mandy and Jill in alternating first person viewpoints. I enjoyed both their voices (which are clearly differianted from each other), and this technique allowed me to observe their developing relationship through both sets of eyes; to learn what each thought of the other and served to highlight that every narrator is unreliable – there is no such thing as real, just the way we personally imagine things to be.
Mandy, who is seventeen when the book opens, is in the final trimester of an unplanned pregnancy and has run away to Colorado to stay with the woman she has found to adopt her baby. There are no official agencies involved – everything has been arranged online with a lot of trust placed in strangers on both sides. This woman (Robin) already has a daughter, Jill, who is Mandy’s age, and isn’t overjoyed about the prospect of a new sibling – or anything else that matter, as she is understandably still working through her grief having lost her father in a car accident less than a year ago. How To Save A Life explores the thoughts and decisions of, and relationships between, these characters (and their supporting cast) over the last few months of Mandy’s pregnancy, with some humour and romance thrown in for good measure.
I found How To Save A Life utterly absorbing. If I could have sat and read it all in one go, I would have. I’m not surprised that it isn’t Sara Zarr’s first novel, as it was very well written and flowed beautifully, with impeccable pacing. I often find YA books are more “fun” to read than “adult” fiction for precisely this reason, but a downside to YA can be that the plots/characters are less multi-faceted – not so here, where there were several sub-plots and both main characters developed discernibly.
I found Mandy annoying initially. She hasn’t had an easy time of it, and as such I knew I should have sympathy for her and try to be understanding about how she was, but her values seemed misplaced and she was attention-seeking, needy and far too open. Jill I liked much more – she is smart, “alternative” and critical, the sort of teenager I hoped I was; although she is guilty of burying her feelings too deeply and using anger to cover up sadness (the sort of teenager I was, whether I wanted to be or not). I could relate to Jill’s initial dislike for Mandy, but as time wore on and I came around to Mandy’s way of thinking, and a greater understanding of why she was how she was, I was pleased to observe Jill doing the same. The differences between Jill and Mandy are used to highlight wider issues, particularly those around class and parental influence – Mandy believes Jill to have it all as her family isn’t short on cash and (unlike her own mother, who views Mandy as nothing but a burden) Robin is interested in her life and education, whilst Jill is snobby about Mandy’s love of trashy TV and celebrity magazines. Neither realises that they’re not looking at the big picture of each others’ lives to see why things are the way they are, and even that they may have grown up to be much more like each other had they had the same starting place in life. I also loved the character of Dylan, Jill’s boyfriend. He isn’t portrayed as overtly masculine, but instead is a gentle, caring guy who wears eyeliner and wants to be a dad to a hoard of kids one day.
Sara Zarr writes about teenagers with respect. Jill and Mandy may both have naiveties, but they are credited with the ability to learn and to change, to self-reflect and improve. They are given independence, no-one goes wild on drugs or booze and it is addressed matter-of-factly that Jill is in a long-term, consensual, sexual relationship with Dylan – I thought these were good touches on the authors part. Had I read this as a teenager I think I would have appreciated the lack of condescension and granting of maturity given to the characters, and as an adult reader it helped me relate to them better. I even had a dream that I was Jill after I stayed up late reading this, so much did the book get under my skin.
There was only one aspect of How To Save A Life that I feel slightly critical about, and that was the ending – it was very predictable, and the plot arc as a whole took a bit of a Hollywood path, complete with jeopardy at around the 80% mark that I knew would be resolved by the novel’s close. Given the story being told here I can see it was the happiest, or at least most compromising, outcome, so it hasn’t detracted from my love for the book, although is the main reason that whilst I have given this five stars, it’s not getting filed under “instant favourite”. Nevertheless, I will be looking out for, and looking forward to reading, Sara Zarr’s other books.