About the Book

Title: How To Save a Life
Published: 2011
Swoonworthy Scale: 6

Cover Story: Not Too Shabby
BFF Charm: Eventually
Talky Talk: Straight Up Mother-Effing Sara Zarr x 2
Bonus Factors: Keith Mars Award of Awesome Dadhood, Bookstore, Yearbook
Relationship Status: LYLAS

Cover Story: Not Too Shabby

I love the vibe of this cover, because it definitely communicates the wintry, lonely feel of the story. At the same time, the title is printed IN SUCH LARGE LETTERS, which is really unnecessary, because you’ll already have the song stuck in yr head for the next two weeks.

The Deal:

Here’s the thing about Sara Zarr, you guys. Girlfriend can take any YA cliche and, no matter how much it’s been abused and overused, restore that stereotype to its original, heart-breaking roots. She’s done it with rapechild abusealcoholism and now, in this book, she tackles teen pregnancy, sexual abuse and the death of a parent. WHOAH. I know that list sounds an awful lot like a Lifetime Original Movie (that I would enjoy), but Zarr’s genius transforms the ingredients for a reality show into a compelling, beautiful, REAL story, and it all begins with Jill and Mandy.

Think you’re having a shitty year? Talk to Jill MacSweeney. Her father, who was her rock and her role model, passed away in a car accident about eight months ago, and her mom, Robin, has decided to adopt a new baby in spite of Jill’s protests. Enter Mandy, the unborn baby’s teenage mother, who is fleeing from her heinous mom and mom’s equally heinous boyfriend. Both Jill and Mandy want to escape their past, and that’s pretty much the only thing they have in common. So it should come as no surprise that Jill is NOT pleased when Mandy moves in, esp. since the closets are already stuffed with emotional baggage. In spite of her secrets, Mandy embraces the love and care from Robin, while Jill returns to the arms of her ex-boyfriend, Dylan. But eventually, both girls must face the inevitable: the future is unstoppable, and it’s bringing a baby.

BFF Charm: Eventually

BFF Charm with a sweatband on

I think my bff charm lost, like, ten pounds from the workout that Jill and Mandy gave it. These girls have obviously been through a lot, and trauma isn’t known for making you Miss Congeniality (unless you’re Sandra Bullock). Jill is a total bitch to her mom, to Mandy, to Dylan, to her old friends and even to Ravi, a guy who’s trying his damnedest to be her friend. Ok, so basically Jill is a bitch to everyone. It was SO HARD to watch her trash relationships and take out her anger over the loss of her dad on the people around her. And then there’s Mandy. The best way I can describe Mandy is that she’s like an alien pretending to be a teenage girl. She wears Sunday school flowery dresses and awkwardly hits on older men and thinks the TV is her friend and has no conversational skills whatsoever. Y’all, she’s weird. But that Sara Zarr is so sneaky, because at some point, about halfway through the book, I realized I was kinda sorta liking these two crazy ladies. And by the end, I not only understood them, I found myself loving them. Really, truly, loving them.

Swoonworthy Scale: 6

Mandy’s one night stand with a boy at a carnival is definitely sweet, but most of the swoon in this book comes from Jill’s arena. Her on again, off again relationship with Dylan isn’t necessarily romantic, but it’s incredibly compelling, and my heart almost burst for them on more than one occasion. And then there’s Ravi, who had a crush on Jill the year before, and who reenters her life through her job at the bookstore. Ravi is handsome and wonderful and kind, and it’s both excruciating and exhilarating to witness his attempts to slip beneath Jill’s armor.

Talky Talk: Straight Up Mother-Effing Sara Zarr x 2

Honestly, no one can do justice to Sara Zarr’s writing except for, well, Sara Zarr. Her style is deceptively simple, and she can form a knife with just a few words and then STAB YOU IN THE HEART WITH IT. When I imagine her writing, I picture her using a typewriter, with each punch of the key sending a rush of emotion onto the page. This book in particular is a double whammy, because she alternates between the perspectives of Jill AND Mandy. Their voices are stark yet rich with complexity, and the feelings they experience are powerfully real. Here’s an example, from Mandy’s perspective:

A lot of times when I look at the world and everyone in it, I feel like they all know something I don’t. I’m not dumb; I can see how it works. But it’s like double Dutch jump rope. In grade school I would watch the ropes fly and see girl after girl jump in and either get it right or get tangled in the ropes and laugh. I’d stand there with my hands ready and my body going back and forth, trying to get the rhythm and the right moment, and Ms. Trimble, the PE teacher, would say, “Come on, Mandy, everyone’s waiting,” and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t figure out how to get in.

That’s how life feels to me. Everyone is doing it; everyone knows how. To live and be who they are and find a place, find a moment. I’m still waiting.

Bonus Factor: Keith Mars Award of Awesome Dadhood

Keith Mars hugging his daughter, Veronica Mars

Even though he dies before the book begins, Jill’s dad is very much present in this story. He’s loud and opinionated and colorful, and in addition to grief, he’s left Jill with some wonderful footsteps to follow. He taught her to be self-reliant, to be an independent thinker, and, most importantly, to listen to Otis and try a little tenderness. This excerpt pretty much sums up why he’s a winner of the Huxtable award:

I can hear his voice inside me. I know what he would say not only about germaphobia but also about Dylan being in a band (“Dylan’s a good kid, but joining a band is just asking for a heroin addiction”), … Mom’s haircut (“I never liked short hair on women, but your mom looks damn cute”), and the school librarian’s ART CAN’T HURT YOU T-shirt (“I’m all for free speech, but has she ever seen a Steven Seagal movie?”).

Bonus Factor: Bookstore

Storefront of The Shop Around the Corner bookstore from You've Got Mail

Jill works for a big chain bookstore, and even though I’m all about supporting the mom and pops, there’s something so comforting about places like Barnes & Noble and Borders (RIP). Maybe it’s my inner suburban high schooler, but Jill’s job totally made me jealous.

Bonus Factor: Yearbook

Brian's 7th grade yearbook 'To a f*cking dick"

Just like Melissa Joan Hart, I believe in the magical power of yearbooks, and without spoiling anything, let’s just say that a yearbook plays a pretty swoony role in this story.

Relationship Status: LYLAS

As an only child, I don’t really know what it’s like to have a sister. But I imagine that it feels a lot like reading this book. There were times when I wanted to hug it, and there were other times when I wanted to slam my door in its face because it REALLY UPSET ME. We’re different from each other, and yet I feel a deep, emotional connection between us. We don’t, like, go shopping or hang out at school together, but when this book needs to pour out its feelings, I am glad–no, honored– to cry along with it. I look up to this book, and at the same time, I’m proud of it. And if it ever asks to borrow my favorite top, I’ll totally say yes. Which, coming from an only child, means a lot, you guys.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my free review copy from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. I received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review (dammit!). How to Save a Life is available now.

Sarah lives in Austin, and believes there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure, which is part of why she started FYA in 2009. Growing up, she thought she was a Mary Anne, but she's finally starting to accept the fact that she's actually a Kristy.