When someone lives a certain kind of life all the time, it's hard to describe to them what it looks and feels like to someone who lives a certain other kind of life.
How to save a life is another great book by Sarah Zarr that deals in an unusual way with two teenagers trying to cope with difficult circumstances in life. The novel is written in the alternating voices of two teenage girls whose lives are very different. Jill MacSweeney is struggling to come to terms with the death of her father with whom she was very close. Jill who lives with her mother, Robin, is in her last year of high school. Her mother has decided to adopt a baby. This was something she and Jill's father had often discussed and Robin feels that this is the time. She posts her intention online and receives a response from a girl in Omaha. Robin then takes the unusual step of inviting this teen to spend the final weeks of her pregnancy at her home in Denver, where they will arrange an open adoption.
Mandy Kalinowski is the pregnant teen who lives in Omaha with her mother and her mother's boyfriend, Kent. Mandy is determined to give her baby a chance at the life she never had living with her mother and her numerous boyfriends. When Mandy sees Robin's request online of offering to adopt a baby she responds and they strike a deal. She will give Robin her baby and move on with her life. Mandy tells Robin only what she needs to know and not all the specifics of her situation.
How To Save a Life opens with Mandy traveling by train to meet up with Robin and Jill in Denver. It is apparent from the beginning that Mandy is a very needy person who is in search of a father figure, especially when she tries to connect with a much older man sitting next to her on the train. In fact, when he leaves to go to the bathroom she manages to copy his mailing address down, despite the fact that this fellow has made it clear to her that he's not interested. After Mandy arrives in Denver and settles in with Robin and Jill, they learn that she is not as far along in the pregnancy as she indicated. The reader gradually begins to suspect that Mandy has been living under less than ideal circumstances at home and soon learns the reality of her situation, although that is not known to Jill and Robin until much later in the novel.
The relationship between Jill and Mandy in the novel is complicated. Neither of them are likable characters but as Zarr develops her characters, they grow and mature and more positive attributes are revealed. Jill is a bit goth, rebellious and judgmental. She lives the life of an upper class kid, somewhat spoiled and she is angry at her mother for bringing this strange girl into their lives, at a time when she is struggling to cope with her dad's death. In the overwhelming and unacknowledged pain of her loss, Jill strikes out against those who love her, alienating her friends and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Dylan, alike.
When Ravi Desai, loss prevention associate, shows up at Margins, the store where Jill works, she is unexpectedly attracted to him. Jill's bad behaviour is unsuccessful in alienating Ravi, whose sensitive nature allows him to connect with her. He helps Jill understand that she has changed since her father's death. Because he didn't know the old Jill who existed when her father was alive, he is more readily accepting of the person she is now. He believes that she is a good person, even when Jill hates herself and how she is so mean to everyone around her, especially Mandy. Ravi recognizes that Jill's behaviour has its source in her grief and pain over the loss of her father.
Mandy, on the other hand, is afraid of Jill, but is much stronger emotionally than she appears. Mandy has come to Denver with a plan, and that is to save her baby's life and make sure it is a life that is happy and secure. As she lives with Robin and Jill, she comes to realize that her baby will not want for anything but will not have her mother. Unknown to Jill and Robin, Mandy's feelings about the baby begin to change as she nears her delivery date, thus adding another dimension of suspense to the novel. But Mandy has no plan for herself after the birth of her baby. She has no idea what will become of her or where she will go.
As the novel progresses, the relationship between all the characters in the book work towards a resolution that is both unique, warm and hopeful. For example, Dylan helps Jill understand something about Mandy that allows her to change Mandy's life in a fantastic waym while Ravi offers Jill the possibility of a future.
I want to start again. Not necessarily in a relationship but for myself. I want to start again with me, as the me I've become without Dad here. Good and bad and all of it.
In the end, Jill offers Mandy what they both want - something different from what they both have now. For Mandy, it means saving not only her baby's life but hers as well. For Jill, saving Mandy means moving forward after her dad's death.
How To Save a Life deals with themes of friendship, loss, and identity.
How to Save A Life by Sarah Zarr
New York: Little, Brown and Company 2011