19th Sep 2012
How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
High school senior Jill and her mother Robin are reeling after the sudden death of Jill’s father less than a year earlier, both trying to survive in their own very different ways.
Jill sees herself as the stoic one of the two; stubborn, cynical and practical like her father, the foil to generous, open and impetuous Robin.
Jill copes in a fairly typical teenaged way, closing herself off and getting a mildly rebellious makeover. Robin takes a rather more drastic approach: she decides that to accept death, she needs new life, and begins the process of adopting a baby.
Robin joins an online open adoption forum, and soon makes contact with Mandy, a pregnant, wrong-side-of-the-tracks teenager. Mandy lives with her unstable mother and her mother’s even-more-unstable boyfriend, part of a pattern that has repeated throughout Mandy’s life.
As her mother moves from one unsuitable man to the next, looking for someone to take care her, Mandy is inevitably left to take care of herself.
Mandy is desperate for escape, even before realising she’s pregnant; but the thought of her baby living the same life is unacceptable. She agrees to give her baby up to Robin, with the proviso that she comes to live with Robin and Jill for the month before the baby is born. Naïve Mandy has a vague that this will lead to a better future for her, and that a world beyond her rural poverty will open at her feet.
And Mandy is indeed suddenly launched into a world that she’d never dreamed of, with caring, available mother-figure Robin creating a middle-class domestic paradise.
Mandy is able to see a different kind of life than she has before, but Zarr’s description of the class divide, and the prospects of the haves and have-nots, becomes a bit over-simplified; a comfortable life and sense of ‘home’ is reduced to organic peanut butter, leather furniture and a nice, natural-fibre jumper.
Mandy and Jill are co-narrators, and the novel switches between their first person perspectives. They’re both given distinctive voices, gradually becoming clearer and more confident, and we’re allowed into the intimate thoughts of two very different teenage girls.
For all their differences, both Jill and Mandy can be, well… a bit annoying, in a particularly teenaged-girl kind of way, their opinions all bordering on idealistic and emotional and exaggerated.
At all the moments when from my adult perspective I want to shake them and tell them to grow up, they are growing up, in a lurching, painful way that makes their characters more realistic and relatable.
Robin, Jill and Mandy all teeter on the edge of becoming stereotypes: patient, selfless and suffering mother-figure; surly, sensitive and sarcastic middle-class teenager; and delicate, damaged victim of abuse.
Yet, Zarr gives each of them depth and character that is uniquely their own, and creates rich and believable relationships between them. I found myself rooting for them, hard, as they set out to save their own lives, and each other’s.
How to Save a Life is heart-warming novel for young people, but never twee or condescending, and I found it hard to put down once I’d started. Recommended for teenagers and adults alike.
Recommended for… Anyone, at any age, figuring out what it means to be a grown up.