I picked up this book by accident. I was perusing the Young Adult section at the library looking for books by Gabrielle Zevin (because I really enjoyed Elsewhere), and I stumbled upon How to Save a Life. I wasn’t paying too much attention because the librarian was eyeing me suspiciously, so I pretended it was exactly what I was looking for and hightailed it back up to the grown-up books section.
Jill’s dad died a few months ago and nothing has been the same since: not life, not her mom, not her. She is different and struggling to cope, so she has pushed all of her friends away and is “on a break” with her boyfriend, Dylan. She works part-time at a bookstore, and this is pretty much the only place where she feels semi-normal. As she says, she can manage to be cheerful and polite to complete strangers, but not to the people who matter most.
Mandy is 18 and pregnant and needs to get away from her mom and her boyfriend. She swipes mom’s boyfriend’s gold watch, throws some clothes in a bag, and hops a train to meet a woman she has been corresponding with online: Jill’s mom. Mandy knows she can’t give her baby the life it deserves, and Jill’s mom is desperate to fill a void in her life, so Mandy moves in and tries to become part of the family. Except there a few details she hasn’t been all that honest about…
I have a soft spot for authors who can get grief so absolutely right, and that is exactly what Sara Zarr does here. The way Jill describes life after her dad’s death, and her feelings surrounding it, are so spot on, it’s scary. I struggle a lot with “Before My Mom Died” and “After My Mom Died,” and it was refreshing to read about Jill’s difficulty with that as well. It’s not something you do on purpose, and it’s frustrating, but things sort of just categorize themselves automatically into Before and After. Also, the way she searches for her old self, wondering if she used to be nice, and not recognizing her smile in old photos? Exactly. Just, wow.
Aside from all that, I really loved this book. I’m a big fan of novels that switch back and forth between two different perspectives, and this one was done wonderfully. I loved seeing things from Mandy’s perspective and hearing her explain why she said that or acted a certain way, but then seeing it from Jill’s point of view and realizing how bizarre Mandy truly is.
This story is heartwarming, if maybe a tad predictable. I’ve been waiting for a book with characters that I could really latch on to, and this was it. I could picture them in my head so clearly, and there were a lot of times I just wanted to reach out and give both girls a giant hug because, despite their flaws, they were both experiencing tremendous amounts of pain. Two thumbs up.