Jill MacSweeney thinks her mother is delusional when she unveils a plan to change their family forever: adopting a baby. The child in question comes with pregnant Mandy Kalinowski, a pretty girl with a hardscrabble life in Nebraska. The MacSweeneys have dealt with their share of trouble and heartbreak, and the serendipitous way in which Mandy and Robin MacSweeney connect online is a flicker of hope in an otherwise dark year.
Jill is a tough teen and only child reeling after her father’s unexpected death, and Mandy’s arrival is another obstacle to her never-ending grief. Feeling alone in the world, Mandy is desperate for human connection — but thinks giving up her unborn baby will free him or her of the life she herself led. Jill’s a little surly, sure, but her mother is a saint. It seems like the perfect opportunity — until Mandy begins to question everything. And her presence will change the MacSweeney family forever.
Sara Zarr’s How To Save A Life was a moving, poignant and realistic look at a family torn apart by a death — but it’s not a (completely) somber tale. It’s sad, yes, and my eyes filled with tears several times. But the overall message is still one of hope — that good things can come from terrible circumstances. That we can go on and rebuild and live again.
At first, Jill is a difficult character to like. She’s angry and sullen and so stereotypically teenager-y, but her attitude is compounded by her all-consuming grief. Her father Mac, the family patriarch, is a huge presence in the book — almost as much as any living character. We come to know so much about him and what he meant to his wife and daughter, and we learn about the way he supported and encouraged the women in his life. Knowing what an adventurous man he was — such a good man — breaks our hearts, too. So we share in Robin and Jill’s grief. We swim in it.
And Mandy, sweet Mandy — oh boy. She’s loopy and eccentric and a little odd, you know? She’s socially awkward and wounded and a bit broken, but she’s still such a sweet and innocent soul. So much has been taken from her, it seems, but much has been given in return. I wanted to wrap an arm around her from the very beginning, leading her wherever she needed to go. My maternal instincts went nutso the more we learned about her, and she was such a fully-realized character. I loved that, despite everything, she remained so hopeful and optimistic.
The story’s main tension comes from Mandy’s decision-making — will she really give up her baby? Will she tell Robin and Jill the actual circumstances she faced back in Nebraska? How will she remain active in her child’s life — especially without legal permission? As Jill and Robin became more and more attached to Mandy, I started to get antsy. Was she who she claimed to be? Was Mandy going to break off another piece of their glued-together hearts?
Seeking those answers was what propelled me along, even when How To Save A Life was a sad and difficult read. I ultimately ended the book on a (very) high note, though, and liked the delicious ambiguity of the ending. When I realized how some of the many problems could be solved, I felt an intense sense of relief. Sara Zarr is a powerful writer with the ability to bond you to her characters, and I’ve never forgotten Sweethearts, the young adult book that launched me back into the genre as an adult.
4 out of 5!