Review: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Sara Zarr How to Save a Life

341 pp.  Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Release: October 2011

Source: ARC received from the publisher

Summary (From Goodreads): 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.

Prepare for gushing because this novel is beautiful and amazing.  I’ve been a fan of Sara Zarr since a family friend gave me a copy of Story of a Girl as a college graduation present.  Story of a Girl has remained my favorite up until now.  How to Save a Life is such a strong novel and very different from Zarr’s other novels.

All of Zarr’s novels are strong in story and characters, but there’s a different feel to How to Save a Life.  I finished reading it thinking, “Wow.  This is her stand out, best book yet.”  The two point of views are seamless, dynamic and natural.  I could picture Jill and Mandy perfectly, but I could also picture her mom, Dylan and Ravi with ease as well.  I finished this yesterday and I’m still thinking about Jill and Mandy; I connected with them on such an emotional level.  Mandy is naive and often socially awkward; I often felt awkward for her, especially at the beginning.  She is also understanding, compassionate, and true.  Jill is grief-stricken and sometimes harsh, but she wants to open up and be a new, friendlier Jill.  I couldn’t help but fall for these girls.  So often I was willing them to communicate with one another and with the people around them.  Watching them develop a friendship and begin to trust others was one of the best parts of the novel.  Sara Zarr really did a fantastic job writing these characters.

The story itself is beautifully layered and more than just a story about a girl giving her baby up for adoption.  This is a story about the many ways of dealing with grief.  Jill has isolated herself.  Her friends aren’t easy to get back, her relationship with her boyfriend is strained, and she doesn’t know how to connect with her mother.  The relationship between Jill and her mother, Robin, is believable.  Sometimes these relationships are exaggerated in novels, but I never felt like either of their interactions or reactions were over the top or unbelievable.  And this is a side note, but even though I’ve never met Sara Zarr, I kept picturing her as I read Robin.  Maybe that’s weird, but I did.  Mandy is of course battling the conflicting emotions involved with giving up her baby.  This conflict is made deeper because of her own need for a mother.  Mandy’s mother is absent, cold and simply not what a mother should be.  She’s still connected to her and often recites her advice, but her need for someone like Robin is obvious.  Mandy broke my heart more than once.  I love a book like How to Save a Life because I can offer it to more students considering the rich layers.  I can hand this to a student looking for a book about teen pregnancy, grief, strained relationships with mothers, losing a parent, finding ways to trust again, and I could go on.

Sara Zarr has written a phenomenal book.  I absolutely loved it, and of course that means I’m struggling to write the review.  I hope I’ve found the right words to express the awesome that is this novel.  How to Save a Life is an emotional novel that will warm your heart.


  1. Yay for Sara Zarr! I LOVED Story of a Girl and own, but haven’t read her other two books. I’ve been hearing mixed things about this one (leaving me with a general… lukewarm feeling) so I’m really glad to hear that you loved this one so much! Hopefully I will too!! 😀

    • Mrs. Andersen says:

      I have mixed feelings about her other two books. I didn’t really care for Sweethearts and Once Was Lost was good, but not as good as Story of a Girl or How to Save a Life. I think this new one is her best.


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