How to Save a Life
Little, Brown 2012
Jill is angry. Her father, the one person who she felt understood her, is dead and her mother, Robin, queen of the impulsive decision, has decided to adopt a baby. Having isolated herself from her friends former life, Jill finds herself floundering in her fury and confusion, feeling too much and yet too little. Heading towards Jill and Robin is Mandy. Seventeen and heavily pregnant, Mandy has made some difficult decisions with eerie focus and travels in the hope that Robin will provide the kind of home for Mandy's child that Mandy has never known. As these lives collide in a kaleidescope of change all three must learn how to make decisions that look to the future and get past their almost insurmountable differences in order to triumph over the loss of the past.
How To Save a Life is told in dual narrative through the eyes of Mandy and Jill, two girls of the same age but with no common experience nor shared understanding to draw them together. Jill, understandably, resents Mandy from the start. Actually, Jill resents pretty much everyone. A knowingly flawed individual, Jill has always had a tendency to lash out at others - something that was shared with yet tempered by her late father. In her grief, this aspect of her personality has come to the fore along with an inate cynicism and ongoing irritation at her loving but erratic mother. Jill's temper tantrums, self-imposed isolation and push-you-pull-you relationship with boyfriend Dylan all ring the bells of truth yet, while not always likable, Jill inspires great sympathy - she is just so completely and utterly lost. Zarr also tempers the harsher side of Jill's personality with a sharp wit and underlying tenderness seen mainly when she encounters co-worker Ravi, someone who seems determined to see past the sadness to the heart underneath.
Mandy herself is a character who initially makes those around her, not to mention the reader, extremely uncomfortable. She has some seriously skewed ideas about how to interact with others, particularly men. However, as the story goes on Mandy's curious mix of strength and fragility, along with her desperately sad idealism and naivity becomes heartbreaking. She's childlike even as she bears her own child. Her observations of Jill are fascinating in that Mandy feels only a strangely vague sympathy and eagerness to please when faced with Jill's barrage of sarcasm, anger and resentment. Equally, the relationship she has built with Robin both prior to their physical meeting and in its ongoing reality is one of constantly shifting sands and often hard to read.
How to Save a Life is populated with a small cast of additional characters who are well developed throughout. Boyfriend Dylan is fantastically written as a teenage boy who is very much in love with Jill. He desperately wants to help her through her loss, but keeps hitting a brick wall. His ability to throw some objectivity on the situation with Mandy is a bone of contention between him and Jill and his actions later in the book, while impulsive and pretty stupid, are inspired by his very real conviction that Mandy should be allowed to make her own decisions for the first time in her difficult life. Jill's friend Ravi is another multi-faceted character who despite clearly having his own (alluded to) problems, offers true friendship to both Jill and Mandy. Finally, Robin is a triumph. As a mother in YA, she's a standout in that she is entirely three-dimensional. She's impulsive, yes, but it all comes from a good place. Her stubborn attitude with Jill is infuriating yet not uncaring and her relationship with lost-sheep Mandy is both confusing and compelling.
In How to Save a Life, Sara Zarr has brought her imperfect characters together in tour de force of excellent story-telling and brilliant characterisation. The story has layers and levels that continue to reveal themselves to the last page and nothing quite turns out as one might expect, or even as one might hope. As a writer, Zarr is queen of imbuing her protagonists with believablity, from her main cast to those who just appear for a few pages (in this case, mad props must go to the creation of Jill's employer and their later interactions which are tangible enough to taste). More than anything, How to Save a Life is extremely moving. Certainly, the final few chapters of Mandy's story in particular had this reader in floods of tears - and I can count on one hand the books in my life that have had such an effect. This is a book that should be recommended not only to teenagers but to mothers and daughters of any age, because it does, above all, touch on the curious and often challenging experience of navigating that relationship of all relationships. If you pick up one contemporary book this year, make it this one - it really is quite something.
This review was brought to you by Splendibird who would also like to recommend the fantastic audio book and suggest strongly that you invest in some tissues and chocolate before you start to read.