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How to Save a Life

How to Save a Life 199x300 How to Save a LifeThe year is winding down, my cold has returned with a vengeance, and I’m all out of witty titles.

But there are still books to read! Books that are getting lots of lauds and lots of love and require discussion here.

Because these are the books that might wear the crown come January 23!

Or they might not.

Last week I took the time to read one our late additions to the contenda list, Sara Zarr’s How to Save a Life. It’s gotten four stars; notably, these are the most consistent reviews I’ve read in a long time. It also made both the PW and SLJ best lists. That’s a lot of love, and there’s no question that this is a compelling book: two broken teens who come together thanks to a rather unusual chain of events that has everything to do with the ways in which they are broken, and find that maybe they each have what the other needs.

But it’s also a little after-school special. And possibly too crowded: teen pregnancy, grief, and sexual abuse on the Issues front, and then dozens of smaller lowercase-i issues too.

So what’s the sweet spot between the poles of moving and messaging, powerful and PSA?

The reviewers and best-list compilers clearly think this one hits that sweet spot. I’m not sure I agree: even as I was choking up and plopping tears on the pages, part of my brain was making snide, cynical remarks. I don’t think it’s just that I’m a mean, grouchy reader. Some of the response was related to my own baggage: I lost my father as a teen, so it was hard not to look for the familiar in Jill’s story. And much of her grief was delineated beautifully. The jealousy of others, who have fathers; the pushing away of friends; the desire to hold her grief tight because it’s what she has left; the difficulty knowing who she is in the absence of this person who defined her: losing a parent sucks, and Zarr shows that to the readers in a dozen powerful ways. But there was something about Jill’s first person narration that detracted from the well-described and shown-not-told grieving; too many times Jill recognizes that she is about to do or say something unpleasant and steps right into it anyway. Her self-awareness in these moments sat strangely against her behavior. But that’s nit-picking; by and large, Jill’s story is a powerful story of the moments of transition from the earlier, angrier stages of grief to acceptance. And if I were only reading Jill’s story, I could easily be convinced that this is a serious contender despite the small contrivances of voice. First person narrative requires a certain amount of willing suspension of disbelief specific to the conventions of the voice, and nothing here really pushed me too far out of the story.

But Jill’s voice is only half of the book. Every other chapter is Mandy’s voice and Mandy’s story. And while the bones of the story work, and the arc works well as counterpoint to Jill’s arc, Mandy’s voice is something of a mess.

Early on, I found that I was reacting to Mandy’s voice much as I reacted to Blink’s: something was off, and whatever it was left me looking for a diagnosis. She was weirdly dispassionate and yet invested, and her obsessive behavior with Alex, the stranger sitting beside her on the train, was disturbing. Had this been a clue to the behavior she has exhibited in the past and part of how she ended up pregnant, it would have been a powerful moment of showing. Instead, she seemed unbalanced, especially since her desire to strike up a conversation doesn’t seem at all in character. Perhaps it is to show up how her mother has shaped her? But we get that in so many more organic ways as the story goes on. Why start with a scene and set of behaviors that then calls in to question for readers everything Mandy later recalls about her one day of romance? Or if readers are meant to question that memory (Mandy says something about how she chooses to remember), why end the book (spoiler alert, as if the rest of this wasn’t spoiler-filled) with the journey to find Christopher and a sense of hope?

About a third of the way through, Mandy starts to gel as a character and pieces start to fall into place; by the end, she is fully realized and consistently a survivor, but those early chapters read almost as if they are Jill’s perspective: Mandy as alien and unwanted, when in fact she has already taken her future into her own hands and begun her journey to a successful, hopeful future.

Flaws aside, the juxtaposition of different kinds of loves and losses—Mandy’s silent bearing of her abuse with Jill’s drowning of her grief and pain in sex; Mandy’s deep need for Robin’s affection coupled with fear of angering her against Jill’s anger that the less-preferred parent is the one she is stuck with—makes for some rich content. Thematically, this has winner written all over it.

Ultimately, though, the flaws in the Mandy chapters took it off my prediction pile: the writing and voice don’t live up to the themes and content. Plus, there’s that lingering, after-school special sensation: it’s too pat; the situation is unbelievable and thus the emotional connection seems manipulated rather than built at times.

Also, what’s up with that cover? Is it just me, or does it set the reader up for a totally different book?

Pub details: Little, Brown October 2011; reviewed from final copy.

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything (except current events, because she’s too busy reading YA literature to follow the news). Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Doret says:

    I really enjoyed How to Save a Life, however the chapter transitions between the two main characters were not as smooth as I would’ve liked. They did get better as the story moved along but at the beginning they felt a bit aburpt.

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