Did I ever review Once Was Lost? A peek back at my archives tells me that not only did I not review it, I went into a great big rant about how tired I was of reading about g. d. missing white girls. (STILL SUPER TRUE.) Well, look, you wouldn’t necessarily know it to look at my blog archives, but I am a big fan of Sara Zarr’s, and it is all on the strength of the book she published in 2008, Sweethearts. Sweethearts is about a weird kid who reinvents herself and then does not know how to feel when someone from her weird-kid past comes back into her life. There were so many good things about it, not least its ability to zig into nuance when I expected it to zag into melodrama.
After two failed Sara Zarr attempts that in no way soured me on her, my loyalty has finally paid off in How to Save a Life. The story is told from two points of view (yay): Jill, a high school senior who lost her father in a car accident, and Mandy, a pregnant eighteen-year-old who has agreed to give her baby to Jill’s middle-aged mother for adoption. Mandy wants a good home for her baby but refuses to involve any lawyers or social workers, and Jill–who has been pretty much nonstop furious since her father’s death–is convinced that Mandy is trying to pull a scam on Jill’s vulnerable mother.
“Your mom does what she does, damn the torpedoes,” he used to say.
“Your mom’s a nut,” he used to say. “I’m just along for the ride.”
I mean, I get it. I sort of get it. She’s not just doing this because she wants a baby, though I think she really does. She’s doing this to say a big eff you to fate, or God, or luck, or whatever it is that took Dad away from us. I dare you, she’s saying. I dare you.
As in Sweethearts, the key to everything here is Sara Zarr’s assumption of the good will of all parties. That Jill doesn’t trust Mandy hurts Mandy’s feelings; yet you know that if it were you, and your mother, you wouldn’t be able to trust Mandy either. On both sides, the adoption depends utterly on both sides–Mandy and Robin, Jill’s mother–to count absolutely on the other one’s good faith. And as much as they both want the adoption to go through smoothly, there are times when they waver.
Another thing Sara Zarr portrays perfectly is the gap between Mandy and Jill. It’s not just financial, although it is financial; and it’s not just intellectual, although it is intellectual. Their life experiences have been so different that they might as well have come from different planets. Jill has always been able to count on the support and love of her parents; Mandy never. What’s regular to Jill is a shock and a luxury to Mandy, and it’s easy for Jill to sneer at Mandy’s tastes, and for Mandy to feel that everything has come easy for Jill.
The danger of a book where everyone’s sympathetic is that you’ll end up with a character or two who’s just too saintly. In How to Save a Life, that was Jill’s boyfriend Dylan. I could have lived without Dylan. Dylan was so endlessly patient and caring and communicative, and I’d have liked to see what frayed edges there were on him (apart from a throwaway remark about him not being brave). But that is really my only complaint. Sara Zarr is quite wonderful, and I can’t recommend her enough.