How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Jill MacSweeney is a teenager mourning the loss of her father. She lives in a wealthy neighborhood in Denver, Colorado.

Mandy Kalinowski is a teenager, pregnant and desperate to escape her mother’s household. She lives in the decidedly downmarket town of Council Bluffs, Iowa.

The two meet when Mandy contacts Jill’s mother in order to arrange a private adoption. The catch is that Mandy needs to come to Denver to have the baby, and to have her expenses paid. Robin agrees, and Mandy sneaks out of her mother’s house to take the train from Omaha to Denver.

The two girls don’t exactly hit it off. Jill remains suspicious of Mandy and wary of her mother’s determination to adopt a baby so soon after her own husband’s death; she asks an acquaintance to investigate this intruder into the home she regards as her own. Mandy finds Jill and Robin almost incomprehensible in their insistence on clean living and nutritious eating; she desperately keeps her secrets hidden–the stolen watch, her mother’s threats, and ultimately who the father of her child is. It is only when Jill answers the phone when Mandy’s mother calls, that she realizes the extent and depth of seediness that Mandy was attempting to conceal that her resolve flipflops.

In the end, there’s a happy ending: Robin adopts…not Mandy’s baby, but Mandy herself1.

The book alternates between Jill and Mandy’s perspectives. On the plus side, this allows the author to present each girl’s hidden thoughts and motivations; without that additional background, each girl seems decidedly unpleasant to the other when they first meet, and indeed both continue to get on one another’s nerves until the denouement of the book. I do appreciate the skill with which Zarr turned the two girls’ (and many of the readers’) initial impressions of one another upside down during the course of the book as we learn more about their perspectives.

On the minus, there was rather a lot of hidden motivations; that strikes me as a potential pitfall as the relationship between the three continued past the end of the book. Shouldn’t they have come clean before the adoption process was completed? Unfortunately, the split perspective allowed only half a book to develop each of the main characters, and I’m left wondering a great deal more about the two girls. Especially Mandy: while it’s possible she could be explained away by “abusive stepfather, neglectful mother, impoverished (culturally and financially) upbringing” but she struck me as being mentally ill/disabled in some way, and I wish Zarr had delved into this aspect a bit more.

I have to confess that I didn’t particularly like any of the three main characters, although they did develop during the course of the book. Mandy seemed to be a not terribly bright bit of poor white trash with a personality disorder that turned daydreams into obsessions, fantasies into stalking. Jill and her mother seemed like pretentious upper-crust do-gooders. (Doesn’t help that Jill has an after-school job at a chain bookstore called “Margins”. Twee coy, much?)

This is another agenda-driven book, and in that regard, reminded me of These Things Hidden. Not because they both concern teen pregnancy, but rather because they’re both written about a real-life issue—How to Save a Life about adult adoption and These Things Hidden about the Safe Haven child welfare laws—and in that regard, seem a bit awkward. While the underlying plot point in How to Save a Life was a bit subtler, the fact that the author did conceal it that long made the denouement seem almost like a shaggy dog plot twist.

1yes: there are laws allowing the adoption of people who are over eighteen, for situations just such as this, when the biological parents refuse to relinquish their parental rights, their child cannot be adopted while a minor.


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