(Image from Barnes & Noble)
When Jill MacSweeney's mother announces her plans to adopt a baby, the 17-year-old can't figure out how she's supposed to feel. Excited? Angry? Encouraging? Sad? All of those emotions and more ricochet around inside her, because although the adoption idea has come out of nowhere, Jill can see it for what it is—a lonely woman's attempt to replace her dead husband and college-bound daughter with someone who needs mothering. Jill understands, but she can't quite get behind such an extreme decision. Her mother won't be dissuaded, though, so, because she knows it's what her dad would want, Jill's trying her best to be supportive. At least until she can convince her mom to vent her grief in some less drastic way.
Mandy Kalinowski knows the baby growing inside her will be safe with Robin MacSweeney. Even though she's old (52) for an adoptive mother, Robin seems steady, stable—two adjectives that don't describe 18-year-old Mandy at the moment. It's because of the woman's kind emails that Mandy decides to let Robin adopt her baby when its born. Also, because she agrees to an unconventional adoption, with no contracts, no lawyers. With Robin, Mandy can give her baby a better life and not have to let go of any of her closely-guarded secrets.
Mandy's arrival in Denver leaves Jill even more convinced that taking in the pregnant 18-year-old is a bad, bad idea. Mandy seems shifty, secretive—the exact kind of scam artist that could take her already vulnerable mother for everything she's got. But the more Jill gets to know Mandy, the more she sees the scarred girl underneath the rough exterior. And the more she observes her mom, the more she believes that a baby might be just what Robin needs. At the same time, Mandy's got her own agenda, one that might dash every dream Robin has left. With the baby's due date fast approaching, the three women must learn how to understand each other, trust each other and, ultimately, decide how to proceed when all of their hopes, dreams and goals are on the line.
Well, I did a pretty shoddy job of describing the beauty that is Sara Zarr's fourth novel, How to Save a Life. Maybe, being an adoptive mother, I'm predisposed to like books that are about a subject that's so close to my heart. Or, more probably, Zarr just knows how to write a story that's touching without being saccharine and sentimental. Because, the truth is, I totally felt this one. The characters are sympathetic, complex and genuine. Same could be said for the story, which takes some surprising turns, but remains believable, true. How to Save a Life is just one of those books that engaged me from its first word to its last. It's a heart-wrenching, hopeful novel, one that reminds me why I love contemporary YA so much. I wish I had the words to describe how much the story touched me, but I don't, so I'll leave you with these two words instead: Read it.
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (1 F-bomb, plus milder invectives) and some sexual content
To the FTC, with love: Another library