Book review: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

It’s never too late to start (or restart) living the rest of your life.


This review also appears on, a South African women's lifestyle website where I manage, amongst other things, an online books section.

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr (Usborne)

I’ve always held the opinion that some of the best books are the novels that seem to have little to offer, but which result in you taking an unexpected journey into a story full of heart, introspection and battle-weary protagonists who discover that no matter how life treats you, glimmers of stars can still be seen in the dark.

For me, Sara Zarr’s How to Save a Life ended up being one such book.

I have of course, heard wonderful things about her novels, but having never read any of her work before I was understandably unsure of how I’d react to How to Save a Life. As a result, this book’s been sitting in my one of my shelves for months.

I finally decided to pick the book up, and am very relieved to say that this book touched me in a way that not many contemporary YA novels (with the exception of On the Jellicoe Road and The Sky is Everywhere) have.

There’s so many aspects of this novel to love, but I suppose what I really loved about the book is how honestly it handles the issue of teen pregnancy. How to Save a Life is a book that explores the confused feelings of alienation, loneliness and abandonment that both death and pregnancy bring.

On the one hand we have Jill.  Coming from a family that has it all, Jill was once a happy and well-adjusted young girl.

Then, her father dies and she’s never been the same. Everything that used to matter to her suddenly loses its meaning and as a result, she closes herself off to the world and shuts out everyone who cares about her.

Life’s about to throw her a huge curveball though, because Jill’s mother has decided to adopt a baby, and what follows is a journey filled with heartache, resentment and  an increasing sense of isolation as Jill’s mother starts doting on the girl whose baby she’s about to adopt.

Then there’s Mandy.

17-years old, pregnant and in a desperate situation, she decides to give her baby up for adoption. Coming from an emotionally and sexually abusive home, Mandy is willing to do anything to give her child the life she’s never been able to live.

When her life crosses the paths of Jill and Robin – Jill’s mother – things begin to change in a way that has unforeseen consequences, and suddenly, the solitary paths that each girl has been traversing, merge in a way that leaves everyone in an uncertain place.

And soon, the only thing that becomes clear is that the path to making the decision to live and making the decision to give up something precious, is harder than anyone could have imagined. 

My first thought, when I closed the last page of this book, was that I couldn’t believe that it took me this long to pick up a book written by this author.

My second?

Is that she knows how to create the perfect balance between not sugar coating the issues that come with dealing with death and pregnancy,  and offering readers an open-ended, yet hopeful conclusion that is both realistic and sincere.

Jill and Mandy are two characters who are both broken in different ways. 

We have Jill, whose grief is often displayed through veil of aggressive, unfriendly and abrasive behaviour. She’s a character who many would probably consider to be unlikeable, yet I personally found myself instantly drawn to her and sympathetic to her plight.

Granted, her behaviour throughout the book would probably make most people want to give up on her, but her palpable grief is one of the biggest reasons that made me feel for her.

 It’s hard to crawl out of the hole you’ve been unwittingly pushed in, but the progression that Jill makes from not making an effort, to “trying a little tenderness” (Her father used to tell her that when she was being mean), is incredibly heart-warming.

The glimpses of goodness that come through in the midst of her darkest period, shine through louder than all the times she shows her obvious discontent at the Mandy situation. Watching her come around in the end (subtly done, but it’s there and all the more powerful for it), will have you cheering from the side lines.

Mandy, for her part, is a very sweet character. Despite the abuse that she’s faced, there’s an incredible strength and innocence about her that speaks of having both a selfless and rather naïve viewpoint on life.

Her mistreatment at the hands of the ones who are actually supposed to love her most, is heartbreakingly poignant and will fill you with both anger and sadness.
Living with Robin and Jill while she’s waiting for the birth of the baby she’s promised them, is not an easy feat despite Robin’s inherent and overenthusiastic kindness.

She’s a character that is so unused to people treating her with anything other than disdain, that she finds it harder to accept the complete acceptance Robin has for her, while the more self-deprecating side of her finds it easier to deal with Jill’s attitude towards her.

There is a little romance in this novel, but it’s more of a sub-plot than anything else and wouldn’t have actually made a difference to the impact of this novel had it not been included.

Having said that, the dynamics in the relationships that are and come to be are incredibly interesting and I especially applaud her for boldly including a romance that crosses the racial divide (as common as that is today, it’s not half as common to see in YA novels quite yet).

How the story comes full circle, is something for you to find out, but know this: Sara Zarr’s writing is beautifully understated; her less is more approach to telling this story is what makes this novel such an incredibly powerful and moving book.

What I love even more is that she doesn’t spoon feed us with information; she leaves gaps for us to fill in and make our own conclusions. 

And at the conclusion of it all, what I’ve come to know is this: I went in with little expectation but came out having gotten to know two wonderful female protagonists who each had their own battles to fight and who both came out on the other side with the knowledge that it's never too late to start (or restart) the rest of your life.