9 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Title: How to Safe a Life

Author: Sara Zarr

Genre: Contemporary, Young Adult

Publisher: Little, Brown
Publication Date: October 18th 2011
Hardcover: 341 pages

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.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel

How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher via NetGalley

Why did I read this book: I’ve heard nothing but good things about Sara Zarr’s books and I was in the mood for a good contemporary novel (Hee who am I kidding? I am always in the mood for a good ContempYA these days). Plus, there was this review.


I’ve been sitting here staring at this blank page for over an hour unable to start this review because every time I try I either 1) get all choked up or 2) I deem the lines I’ve written unworthy of this book and delete them. Let’s try this again:

Jill and Mandy are the two narrators, as different from each other as the sun and the moon are yet both are equally suffering, struggling to find a place in the world.

Mandy is pregnant and wants a better life for her baby, a life she never had. She wants to give the baby away in an open adoption so that she can still be a part of the baby’s life in the future.

Jill lost her father a few months back and he was her best friend and main supporter and they shared everything. Ever since then, Jill has been feeling like she lost herself somewhere in the past. All her relationships are strained: she turned her back to her friends; she can barely communicate with her boyfriend Dylan or with her mother, Robin. She is angry, defiant, grieving.

She is also furious with her mother for wanting to adopt Mandy’s baby as though a baby could replace her father, for accepting an open adoption and for bringing Mandy into their lives and into their home.

At first it seems we know a lot more about Jill that we do about Mandy because she is very open in her aggression, in her distance from everybody she loves or cares for. From Jill’s perspective it is clear that sometimes love is not enough when you don’t the path ahead of you; or you don’t know how you can possibly change to adapt to your new circumstances or how to simply let go. Her narrative is full of suffocating grief, but also full of regret. It is hard not to sympathise with Jill, even when she is turning her back to love and tenderness, because she understands what she is missing, what she is doing and she feels for it. But Jill is simply trying to find her way, whatever it takes. I admired her greatly because it takes guts to turn your back to love; it takes guts to say “I am sorry”; it takes guts to move on.

Mandy, on the other hand, was a mystery to start with – her narrative is full of a weird awkwardness, as though she lacked social skills, or something else that it’s hard to put a finger on. But that awkwardness, that lack of something becomes increasingly distressing when the story progresses and she reveals more of herself. Especially when it comes to her feelings about the baby’s father.

Basically, every single line coming from Mandy’s mouth nearly broke my heart. The way that she parroted her mother’s life lessons as though they were the truth but she didn’t see them for what they were – sexist, belittling, wrong – but us, the readers do? The simple, straight-forward way that she observed Jill’s life, Robin’s mothering skills, their house? It felt like someone was squeezing my heart. From Mandy’s perspective, a little bit of love, as little as a friendly hug, is enough to change a person’s entire world.

How to Save a Life is a thing of beauty. The blurb makes it sound like it’s going to be a run-of-the-mill contemporary YA but there is nothing even remotely ordinary or average about this novel: the story and the characters are raw, intense and dramatic. The writing is flawless because despite all this rawness and drama, the story never approaches the melodrama; the emotional state of each character is never cheapened by forced developments, instead feel real and natural. As real as the characters became to me: I felt for them even when I disagreed with their actions. I felt for them every step of the way, from page one till the very end. I can’t believe how awesome of a writer Sara Zarr is, I was basically staring at the pages in disbelief because there are many cool things about her writing from quotable lines to great romantic developments; from funny moments to moments where my heart broke into a million different pieces even as I knew those moments were coming. It is hard to express how good this novel is, down to every small detail. Plus it also has a plethora of great well-developed secondary characters including two boys who are both lovely in different ways and even as they were part of a love triangle neither was turned into a villain to make the choice easier – because ultimately choosing between two people you care for is not easy.

The ending is perfect. It is basically ponies and rainbows and part of me thinks that it may well be too perfect. But at that point, it was the ending that the characters needed. Heck, it was the ending that I needed, the ending I hoped they would get. I can’t argue against that ending because it was perfect.

Finally, Jill’s boyfriend Dylan (who is such a nice boy) has this whole rating system for everything in life based on the game of rock-paper-scissors:

Whatever is the utmost in awesomeness, whatever is profoundly good, whatever is right and true, is rock. Because rock, though it can be beat (or “hidden,” as Dylan prefers to say) by paper, can never be destroyed.

And How to Save a Life? Is totally rock.

Notable Quotes/Parts: I loved this quote to bits:

I don’t want my daughter to ever hear a story or see a piece of paper or know that one exists on which I signed her away. I don’t want her to ever think that I didn’t want her. No matter what. I don’t want to leave any evidence she could find later that she might think proves to her the worst things she thinks about herself on a bad day. Not when she’s ten, not when she’s fifteen, not when she’s forty. Maybe I’ll be there to explain it to her, but I can’t know that sure enough right now to plan on it. I want it to feel like fate, the way she ended up with Robin. I want to be in her life like a good dream, like someone who might not always be there but who never really left. Her world should feel full of possibilities and open doors, not full of things that are closed and final.

Rating: 9- Damn Near Perfection. And a serious contender for a spot on my top 10 this year.

Buy the Book:

Ebook available for Kindle US, nook, kobo


  • Tina
    October 12, 2011 at 3:45 am

    They say this is Sara Zarr’s best book, and her other books were already very good. Glad to know you liked this, Ana! 🙂 I can’t wait for my pre-order to arrive.

  • Biblibio
    October 12, 2011 at 3:50 am

    Sara Zarr is one of few young adult authors I can think of who can take a standard story and translate it into excellent fiction, mostly due to her incredible understanding of the teenage (and adult) mind. I’ve read Story of a Girl and Sweethearts and both surprised me with their depth and characterization (Story of a Girl remains of the better contemporary young adult books I’ve read in the last few years).

  • Amy @ Turn the Page
    October 12, 2011 at 4:42 am

    I’ve been put off trying this because I wasn’t impressed with Sweethearts that everyone seem to love. But I like (and trust) your reviews so I may pick this one up.

  • Book Review: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr | The Book Smugglers | ReviewTica
    October 12, 2011 at 4:45 am

    […] Visit link: Book Review: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr | The Book Smugglers […]

  • Anne M Leone
    October 12, 2011 at 6:18 am

    Yay Sara Zarr! I loved Story of a Girl and can’t wait to read this one!

  • Angie
    October 12, 2011 at 9:57 am

    *sigh* Yes to everything you said, Ana. I loved it to little tiny bits.

  • Lori Strongin
    October 12, 2011 at 11:36 am

    omg, that quote alone almost had me in tears. Not only am I adding this one to the TBR pile, I’m bumping it to the very top. Everything about that blurb caught my attention and your review just cinched it.

    Thank you so much. I kinda have the feeling that I’m gonna love this book.


  • capillya
    October 12, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    Oh, goodness. The perfect ending? Yes, I shall be reading this.

  • Karen
    October 12, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    I had automatically disregarded this book just because it got that song stuck in my head but it has now been bumped VERY high on the TBR list. What a great review, although I can guarantee that I’ll end up teary-eyed during this.

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  • Kowalski
    October 14, 2012 at 3:20 pm

    How To Save A Life by Sara Zarr features to main characters, Mandy Madison and Jill MacSweeny. Mandy is a pregnant19 year old girl from Omaha, Nebraska who puts her baby girl up for adoption. A woman in Nebraska, Robin MacSweeny, who had lost her husband not even a year ago, has taken up Mandy’s offer. Mandy leaves her mother and her mothers boyfriend behind in Nebraska, and takes the train to Denver where the MacSweeny’s live. Jill, Robin’s seventeen year old daughter, is very suspicious about Mandy and the whole adoption process, for her mother has promised Mandy that there will be no papers or lawyers involved. Jill doesn’t trust or like Mandy because she is so different from the rest of them. But Jill learns to love her in the end. They practically become sisters! But they’ll have to get over some bumps in the road before any of that.

    -KOWALSKI the penguin

  • jesvi
    March 22, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    Oh ….. such a moving story in multi narration ,,,, am doing my project on u …H2SaL

  • Happery
    February 1, 2016 at 8:35 pm

    But does Mandy ever find Lola’s dad?

  • Liliana
    September 27, 2018 at 1:29 pm

    who is the dad of LOLA in the book does not say

  • Liliana
    September 27, 2018 at 1:30 pm

    who is the the baby dad

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