Sara Zarr’s books don’t fall into my usual reading category, but her voice and writing skills make her an impossible writer to put down. Reading about contemporary teens tends to make me feel itchy, +b. I wanted to slap myself for being an idiot when I was in high school, why would I read about teens who don’t exist making fake bad choices?
Because Sara Zarr makes me want to, that’s why. If she wrote a book about light bulbs, I’d read it.
HOW TO SAVE A LIFE (available from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Oct. 18) revolves around the open adoption of pregnant teen Mandy Kalinowski’s baby by Robin MacSweeney, a widow who is looking to fill a hole in her life. Robin’s teen daughter, Jill, is less than thrilled about the proposed new addition that is supposed to bring the fractured family together again, mostly because said addition comes with baggage – in the form of teen mommy camping out at their house until she gives birth.
The dual narrators (Mandy & Jill) could not be more diverse. Mandy never knew her father, and learned hard lessons about what skills women need to get by in the world from a mother who has the audacity to then be outraged when Mandy gets pregnant. Jill was closer to her free spirit of a father than Robin, a driven business woman whose attempts to reach out to her daughter after his death are rebutted by a dark wall of sarcasm. Meanwhile, Mandy is starved for affection, striking up conversations with strangers and writing letters to the man she sat next to during her bus trip to the MacSweeney’s.
Strikingly, the pregnant teen in this scenario is the more innocent of the two. Mandy’s voice, unassuming and sweet, leaves the reader rooting for her as the due date arrives. Jill’s armor, while necessary, is hardly ever down, but the reader warms to her as she begins to process her grief, mostly due to the blossoming of a new relationship with an old acquaintance.
It feels as if the two girls will always be tiptoeing around each other, suspicious of the other’s motives, not aware that they each have something to offer the other that can fill the empty spaces in their lives, despite their differences. Watching them discover this, in sometimes very surprising ways, was quite uplifting.
Even my tin can of a heart was aflutter.