Thursday, December 15, 2011

Review: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Publisher:  Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication Date:  October 18th, 2011

Jill MacSweeney just wants everything to go back to normal. But ever since her dad died, she's been isolating herself from her boyfriend, her best friends--everyone who wants to support her. You can't lose one family member and simply replace him with a new one, and when her mom decides to adopt a baby, that's exactly what it feels like she's trying to do. And that's decidedly not normal. With her world crumbling around her, can Jill come to embrace a new member of the family?

Mandy Kalinowski knows what it's like to grow up unwanted--to be raised by a mother who never intended to have a child. So when Mandy becomes pregnant, she knows she wants a better life for her baby. But can giving up a child be as easy as it seems? And will she ever be able to find someone to care for her, too?

Critically acclaimed author and National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr delivers a heart-wrenching story, told from dual perspectives, about what it means to be a family and the many roads we can take to become one.
(Courtesy of Goodreads)

I really liked this book.  When I first started reading it, I wasn't sure I was going to... It was a little slow to start for me.  The first fifty or so pages didn't really draw me in, but I've had good past experience with Sara Zarr's writing, and this book had gotten such rave reviews, I kept going.  It was well worth it!  This story, told from the POVs of two very different teenage girls, thrown together by circumstance, was really awesome.  I was invested, and by halfway through, I was propping this book up on the vanity so that I could continue reading while I brushed my teeth.  The story wasn't the best part of this book though.  That award goes to the characters.  Sara Zarr has a gift for character development.  She understands the   angsty, volatile minds of teenage girls and she knows how to articulate it so that the reader understands who they are.  A lot of the time I didn't like Jill, but I felt empathy toward her; I understood why she was the way she was and forgave her for the hateful things she did and said.  I liked Mandy better than Jill, but sometimes she was very dim- I wasn't sure if it was act of not, but I definitely wanted to figure her out.  Robin, Jill's mother, was a pretty great character, which is one of the reasons I really didn't care much for Jill; she was so lucky to have her for a mom, and she totally took it for granted. Then there were the boys, Dylan and Ravi; both were great characters, and I honestly didn't know who to root for.  I waffled a lot because they both had so much to offer as both friends and love interests.  This scenario was very believable and the characters were very real.  I understand why it has gotten so much attention from awards judges.

The only thing I didn't like about this book was the same thing I didn't like about the other book I've read by Sara Zarr, Once Was Lost...  The ending was too neat for me.  The book was so real to me, but the ending seemed a little bit too easy, and life doesn't work that way most of the time.  That said, it had a very small impact on how I felt about the book as a whole, because the emotions evoked throughout were really what counted.

My Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★  

Grade Level Recommendation:  Death of a parent, teen pregnancy, and sexual abuse are all themes in this book.  Still, I don't think that it is inappropriate for a MS aged reader.  These topics were all addressed well, and this story actually has a lot to offer as far as life lessons go.  Grades 7 and up (ages 12+).


  1. I'm glad you liked the book. I've been wanting to read this one for forever. I love Sara Zarr.

    I will agree with you that often her endings are too neat. I wouldn't say Sweethearts ended neatly, but maybe too easily.

    Great review!

  2. Awesome review I'm really intrigued by this story and the reviews have been mostly all positive. Neat endings don't always bother me I often expect them anyways. I'll have to read this one soon!

    Xpresso Reads

  3. I love the cover. This sounds like a heavy read though. Thanks for your review.


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