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How to Save a Life Hardcover – October 18, 2011

4.5 out of 5 stars 119 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Author One-on-One: Jenny Han Interviews Sara Zarr
Jenny Han

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?

Sara Zarr

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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Product Details

  • Age Range: 12 - 17 years
  • Grade Level: 7 and up
  • Lexile Measure: 710L (What's this?)
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; 1 edition (October 18, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316036064
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316036061
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (119 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #955,619 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By KC on September 25, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Well, yeah -- it's a little embarrassing. Writing a positive review for a book about a pregnant teen, I mean. It's a first for me, and the rap is that "PT" books are overwrought... melodramatic... maudlin... corny. But somehow Zarr pulls it off. Giving it some thought, I realize the book's genius is in its construction and its characterization. In HOW TO SAVE A LIFE, Zarr uses the alternating chapter/ alternating point of view technique. On the one hand we have the pregnant girl, Mandy. On the other, we have the chief combatant in the family Mandy is joining, Jill. Both are curious characters and (blessed be!) neither exactly warms the heart of the reader. Not at first, anyway. And therein lies one of its strengths. Both characters have murky corners to their souls and neither is one you'd call a close friend. Making these girls gray instead of black and white, good and bad, does wonders for the novel's possibilities. It keeps you reading.

The premise? It's a bit weak. Jill's dad has died in a car accident and her mom has decided to adopt. What's odd is that she doesn't just adopt a baby after it is born, she invites the teenaged mother-to-be (Mandy) to her home for the final weeks of pregnancy. Is that done? If so, it's news to me. OK. So once we cross this suspension bridge of disbelief, we're ready to get caught up in the back and forth between a naive yet hardened Mandy, the product of a lower class upbringing, and snarky, yet self-loathing Jill, the daughter of privilege who is experiencing pain (Dad's death) and confusion for the first time in her heretofore cushy life. Watching the two girls circle each other, with Jill's mom as the beleaguered character in the middle, is, well, fun. And interesting because the characters are.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Jill is a high school student trying to cope with the loss of her Dad. He died eleven months ago and everyday life is still hard for her. She has lost all her friends except for Dylan her on again off again boyfriend and she doesn't understand why he is even still with her. Jill pushed everyone away including her Mom. When her Mom decides to adopt a baby without any lawyers or paperwork Jill knows this is just her moms way of coping and she is furious. How does bringing a new life into their home erase her Father? Many many fights follow her moms decision and Jill finds that she may not be able to cope after all.
Mandy is the girl who has decided to give up her baby for adoption. She has grown up in less than perfect conditions and knows that the only way for her to survive is leave her mom and her moms abusing boyfriend before the baby comes. She seeks help in the only way she knows how and stumbles across Robin, Jills mom. Together they figure out a way for Mandy to live with them before the baby comes without Mandy letting Robin know too much about her situation. So the story begins and we get to witness what happens between Jill, Robin, and Mandy which is emotional to say the least. The events these women have gone through are very tough and heartbreaking. I found myself hoping for the pretty happy ever after tied in a bow and while things ended a little differently than I thought they would I am happy with the direction that the author decided to go.
This is my first Sara Zarr book and I have been told numerous times that she is amazing. While I can't fault her writing as it was absolutely amazing I had a very hard time connecting with the characters. The story was there I just honestly could not stand Jill.
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Format: Hardcover
How to Save a Life is an emotional, character driven novel, that I found myself very much enjoying.
The two main characters, Jill and Mandy are very different, from their backgrounds, their views on life, and their attitudes toward life. This book smashes them together under the weirdest of circumstances, and I slowly learned more about them and why they act the way they do. Ms. Zarr did a wonderful job making their voices distinct, and unlike some books with dual perspective, I had no problems switching from one to another and keeping the characters individual.
I could identify pieces of myself in both characters, but I didn't fully relate with one or the other. Meaning that I didn't understand some of their trains of thought like I might if I just fully connected/related with one character. (Reading this it sounds like a negative thing, but its not... none of it is in the writing or characterization, I think that Ms. Zarr did a terrific job, I'm just trying to convey that I'm different from the characters--hope that makes sense.) I admire the strength in Mandy, and the self-realization and the courage in Jill--even if it's a very hard road for her and those around her as she comes back into herself.
This is a very neat take on teen pregnancy, adoption, and even has an interesting love triangle twist. I was very surprised at how some things turned out, happy at others, even if I did expect it, and left wanting to know more about the characters and what happens next even after the last page... And I say that in a good way, I was attached to them, and did not want to let them go! I think that the plot lines were well tied up and I was satisfied with the ending, I just wanted to know more if that makes sense.
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