Review: How to Save a Life, Sara Zarr

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.

  • Just the other day I was thinking about how much I adored Sweethearts, and how silly it is that I’ve yet to read anything else by Sara Zarr. Maybe I’ll read this one next?

    • Gin Jenny

      Do! Since writing this post, I’ve created a final ranking of Sara Zarr’s books in order from best to worst, and How to Save a Life comes in at number one.

  • “There were so many good things about it, not least its ability to zig into nuance when I expected it to zag into melodrama.” I love it when that happens!

    • Gin Jenny

      Me too! It’s why I love The Good Wife so much.

  • I don’t think I’ve ever thought to add any of Sara Zarr’s books to my TBR. The covers look a little too light fiction-y for my tastes and I’m usually worried about all the knots tied perfectly and and characters coming to an agreement and that sort of thing. Looks like this one has it all, but… did I just say it is too light fiction-y for me? Who am I kidding – that’s what I have been reading mostly lately. Let me take a look at Sweethearts first though.

    • Gin Jenny

      I think this one and Sweethearts are her two best, and I think they’re both very, very good. So I say add to the TBR pile! You won’t regret it!

  • I agree that Zarr is exceptionally good, even when I don’t like a book of hers as much as the others.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yep. Just finished writing a luke-warm review of The Lucy Variations (I remember you weren’t wild about it either), but it hasn’t shaken my good view of Sara Zarr at all.

  • I’ve never read Zarr, but I think I’d start with Sweethearts. I remember a girl in junior high who told our group that she was going to join the super popular crowd in high school. And she did. She was still nice, but distant. I didn’t know whether to like her or resent her, mostly she remained a curiosity to me.

    • Gin Jenny

      What a strange thing to do! And it worked out for her successfully?

  • There were so many good things about it, not least its ability to zig into nuance when I expected it to zag into melodrama.

    I’m glad this worked out! I also adore the above sentence.

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahaha, thanks!

  • I have been hearing good things about this author. I really must read more from her.

  • I have never even heard of Sara Zarr, but your review is most intriguing. I do like a book with a finely balanced ethical tussle at its heart. Trust is a properly interesting thing and one I wish more books got written about.

  • I also adore Zarr, and this was by far my favorite of her work. I’m glad you liked it so much!

  • aartichapati

    I have never heard of Sara Zarr. I must find her and read Sweethearts. Next time I go to the library! Hurrah!

  • I am pretty sure that I should add Sweethearts to my TBR list. I really, really want to read more YA this year but so far I’m not doing so well with that goal. This must change and I’ve already had this author on my radar so thanks for the recommendation!

  • Amy @ My Friend Amy

    aw yes, I loved this one. <3

    btw did you watch Top of the Lake? It's about a missing girl, but she's not white 😉