Wednesday, November 2, 2011

How to Save a Life

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr (2011)

Since her dad died, Jill has isolated herself from her friends as she struggles through each day in a world that no longer seems like a good place. When her mom decides to adopt a baby, Jill can't help but feel like she is being replaced. She also thinks her mom is crazy to take on a baby at her age, and upset that the birth mother, Mandy, will be coming to stay with them for the last few weeks of her pregnancy. In alternating chapters, Jill and Mandy share their stories, their fears, and their hope for the future in a situation that is fast becoming increasingly complicated.

Neither Jill nor Mandy were especially likable at first, particularly because of the lies and deceit behind which they both hid. But as they got to know each other and built up a tiny bit of trust, they began to seem real to me and as they slowly got along better, I came to like both of them.

Mandy is naive, trusting, and socially inept. On the way to the MacSweeney's she chats with a man sitting next to her on the train and, after snagging an address label from the magazine he was reading, starts writing letters to him. It's probably very creepy from his viewpoint, but she's simply a very lonely person who doesn't know how to form friendships and participate in the world. Her mother's version of parenting was to deliver advice on dating and what men want, and to criticize and belittle Mandy at every opportunity. Living with her mom and her boyfriend was not even close to the loving family environment that Mandy wanted, and arriving at Jill and Robin's house was like entering another world. "As we drive into Robin's neighborhood...the houses get nicer and trees tower over them, stretching their branches to protect the families inside." It is this kind of orderly comfort and security that Mandy has never had and continues to long for.

Jill, on the other hand, grew up in that sort of comfort and was very social and involved in life at one time. But she can't deal with what she lost when her father died and rather than rely on her friends and boyfriend to help her cope she simply withdrew. She puts on a great act at work, where she is pleasant and friendly, but she's cold to her family and friends. She says, "I can be human to strangers and coworkers, just not to the people who actually care about me." She's disappointed in herself, and knows that her dad would be disappointed in her behavior as well, which only feeds her self-hate.

Putting these two young women together in one household is a recipe for conflict by itself. Adding Robin is another whole layer: she desperately wants to trust Mandy, but Jill tries to convince her not to. Given Jill's recent behavior it's difficult for Robin to listen to her, but she also wants to repair their relationship. The final outcome is predictable but satisfying.

Sara Zarr continues to excel at creating lifelike, complicated characters and putting them in difficult situations that force them to grow. I think Sweethearts is still my favorite, but if you like Sara Zarr at all (and who doesn't?) How to Save a Life is a must-read.

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