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How to Save a Life Hardcover – October 18, 2011
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Author Jenny Han recently sat down with Sara Zarr to discuss her latest novel, How to Save a Life.
Jenny Han: In my humble opinion, this is the best book you’ve written thus far. I loved it. I know we authors don’t like to play favorites with our book babies, but do you feel that way, too?
Sara Zarr: Thanks, Jenny! I have to admit‚ I do have extra-warm feelings for this book. Some of that is because the writing of it felt so good, relative to the experience of writing my other books. Still hard work, certainly, but enjoyable hard work. I don’t have to tell you that not every book feels that way. Also, I had a very definite sense while writing it that I was undergoing some kind of change and growth as a writer, and that felt good. I’m proud of it as a work, and it will also always symbolize, to me, that period of exciting change and growth.
Han: Did you do any kind of research on adoption?
Zarr: I did. I poked around adoption websites and message boards, and I had to look up some information on laws in the states where the story takes place. The specific circumstances under which Jill’s mom and Mandy find each other has a whiff of “gray market” about it, which didn’t lend itself to research. So I had to imagine and assume it would be entirely possible, as I know people will go to great lengths and push boundaries in the process of creating a family.
Han: Did you plan all along to tell the story from both Mandy’s and Jill’s perspectives?
Zarr: When I first started the book, it was Jill’s story. But as soon as I finished Jill’s first chapter, in which she and her mother are waiting for the train that’s bringing Mandy to them, I knew that I wanted to be on that train, too. I wanted to know what brought Mandy to that moment of leaving home, and what she’d think of her new life in Denver and of Jill.
Han: Mandy moved me very much. There is an innocence to her, but also a sharpness, a manipulativeness. She reminded me of an unwanted puppy that’s thrown into a lake but claws its way back to the surface. Where did you get your inspiration for Mandy?
Zarr: That’s a great description and metaphor for Mandy. She came to me slowly. I know this sounds like one of those weirdo writer things—I just sort of got on the train with her and watched. It took me quite a bit longer to figure her out than it took me to know Jill. At first Mandy was more manipulative, less innocent. I saw her as a type, or as a character. Which, as you know, is not the best way to approach the people we’re creating, but sometimes that’s where you have to start. As her story came to me in pieces, I could see how her experience had made her both strong and vulnerable, and that anything she did that seemed manipulative was simply out of this will to survive that she’d been honing since birth.
Han: Is there one character you related to most deeply?
Zarr: I think anyone who knows me well will recognize where a lot of Jill’s personality comes from. Jill is a lot like me when—well, I hate to say “when I’m at my worst,” because I don’t think that’s fair to Jill. Let’s just say that I understand Jill and why she sometimes treats people who care about her in the shabby way that she does. That said, I also deeply felt Mandy’s longing for safety, for home, for some kind of faith that things are going to be okay. Both Mandy and Jill want those things. Probably everyone does.
Han: What's next for you after this?
Zarr: I’m working on a new novel right now. All I can say is that it’s my usual—contemporary realism—and that the process is challenging me in every possible way. I hope in a year to be able to say that I met those challenges successfully!
* "Filled with so many frustrations, so many dilemmas needing reasonable solutions, and so much hope and faith in the midst of sadness, Zarr's novel is a rich tapestry of love and survival that will resonate with even the most cynical readers."―Booklist, starred review
* "Woven together from two simple threads, the resulting tapestry is as beautiful as it is real. A story that will resonate beyond its final page."―Kirkus Reviews, starred review
* " Zarr crafts intimate and authentic portraits of two vulnerable teens struggling to cope with uncertain futures...their slow, cautious efforts to build trust and better understand the meaning of family are expressed with the deepest compassion and kindness."―Publishers Weekly, starred review
* "The imperfection of the characters and the uniqueness of their situations come together in a compulsively readable novel. Zarr has established herself as an author who must not be missed."―VOYA, starred review
* "Another heavy-hitting page-turner from Zarr....A must read."―School Library Journal, starred review
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The way Jill deals with her loss, by being angry, cynical and by pushing everybody away is pretty much how I felt about my own. Putting holes in my body, dressing in black, using make up, dark nails, angry stares. But always showing that I'm not tough to the core, never been never will.
And Mandy, so innocent and naive, but so damaged in her own way. It's easy to not trust everything that has been given to her just by reading the things she's been through.
These characters are so beautifully damaged it's so easy to be on the same page with them, watching as they think they're strong, as they fall apart, and as they put themselves together.
I was scared Sara would make me hate Dylan, because from the start I came to love him as Jill's wall, her strength. But it was obvious it was a relationship that wasn't going anywhere. And just like that, things you have for certain, first things, will eventually go out of your reach. Nothing is forever.
Not even grief.
At first I was a little bothered because I'm not used to reading two-narrators stories, because I think sometimes details are left out and so. But this one delivered everything, and it was exciting getting from one to another. Mandy had me laughing from the moment she was talking to that man on the train, saying that their age gape wasn't that big. She's a funny, looking for the bright side girl. And with Jill it was slowly, and then all at once. They're both easy to like, easy to relate to. And even though they have bigger problems, you still find them struggling with boys, and love, and mothers. It's a beautiful story.
I loved how different these characters were, how their voices sounded completely different, how their stories complemented each other. Sara Zarr did a beautiful job with them and also with the supporting characters. All characters in the book moved the plot forward and helped the protagonists.
Both Mandy and Jill are dealing with intense issues, and as they gradually come to understand each other, through their alternating chronicles, the reader falls in love with both of them; with their stories, with their perspectives. Caring about all of the characters in this novel, is one of its' draws. (well, truthfully, two characters are awful, but described in a manner that allows you to picture them in a holistic manner).
I titled the review, "Try a Little Tenderness" because it is a central theme to the book, and the song plays an important role in Jill's life. Whenever she and her late father were arguing, one would say to the other, "Try a Little Tenderness" and the fight would stop..wow, kind of a perfect sentiment, right?
So, with Otis singing in the background, I plowed through this book. Yes, crying at the end, but these were tears of joy.
Jill's mother states about life, "be prepared for detours"...and again, how true that is. Some detours we are happy to encounter, others are tragic and throw us for a loop. The death of Jill's dad, throws her family into turmoil, but the detour they ultimately take will have you too crying tears of joy.
I can't recommend this book highly enough.
Both characters are flawed and not immediately likeable. Jill is angry and frustrated because she is unable to express her grief. She shuts out the people in her life who would reach out to help her. Mandy is a clingy, sticky label. The type of person who will tell her life story to complete strangers she just met minutes ago on the train. The story is propelled by the interaction of these 2 main characters, both internally and with each other. By the end, they bring out the best in each other and, thankfully, it is a happy ending!
This is a short, very easy read. I would recommend it for female adults and teenagers alike.
Most recent customer reviews
This had been my first by Sara Zarr, and I grabbed it straight off the shelf at B&N's after reading only the summary on...Read more