How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

How to Save a Life by Sara ZarrHow to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
Narrator: Ariadne Meyers, Cassandra Morris
Published by Listening Library on 1/10/12
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult


Story: B+
Narration: A-

When Jill MacSweeny’s father dies, it sets her adrift from the person she used to be and while she doesn’t like who she’s become, she doesn’t know how to go back to her old self. As she and her mother deal with their grief, they find themselves at odds. It isn’t just the conflict that often arises between mothers and teenage daughters or because of Robin MacSweeny’s decision to adopt a child, it’s also because Jill’s father was the bridge that enabled her and her mother to connect and with that gone, neither is able to close the gap. Mandy Kalinowski is a pregnant eighteen year-old who leaves her home in the Midwest and moves in with the MacSweenys in preparation for giving up her baby to Robin. Mandy’s mother provided an all too painful example of what life can be like when a child is unwanted and Mandy wants something better for her baby but really needs something better for herself, as well.

The story is told in alternating points of view between Jill and Mandy. As Jill tries to connect with her mother, deal with her grief without pushing everyone near her away, and work towards acceptance of Mandy’s place in her family, Mandy is escaping a dysfunctional family and trying to do the right thing for her baby while looking for something or someone to give her a sense of worth and a feeling of control over her life. Each character takes steps or acts in ways that might frustrate the reader if either Jill or Mandy had been one-dimensional but these are engaging characters who are deftly drawn by the author and the reader can see the whole person and understand the motivation. They have very distinct personalities and if I were to pull a page out of the book with names redacted, I could tell who was speaking. That distinct “voice” for each character allowed them to provide such a different perspective on the other that when the POV shifted, I was eager to see each as viewed through the eyes of the other.

The characterization is extremely well-done and despite the fact that I’m going to apply some category labels to this book based on events that take place, it’s inaccurate to call this a book about pregnant teens, or grief, or parenting because the way the characters are developed is so multi-dimensional that this simply becomes a book about Jill, Mandy, and Robin and what happens in their lives at a specific point. It was that sense of authenticity, though, that drove my one complaint about the book: the ending. Everything gets tied up so neatly that it seemed a piece of fantasy at odds with the realism that permeated the rest of the story.

I found this audiobook to be a bit of a meditation on grief and family. I choose the word meditation intentionally because this is one of those books that doesn’t just draw the listener along as the layers of the story and characters are revealed and we wait with anticipation to find out what happens next, it also turns the listener’s mental eye inward to reflect on how they would or have handled similar situations. The writing provides several descriptions of everyday life and emotions that made a profound impact on me. Not in the way that sometimes happens when you think “That’s how I felt but your words describe it better than I could” but in a “I’ve felt like that and didn’t even realize that was why” way. Watching Jill and her mother navigate the loss of father/husband is painful and it’s emotional and it’s heart-breaking but it isn’t dramatic for anyone except the reader because it’s in observing these quiet motions of grief that the drama reveals itself. The set-up provides opportunities for some moments of angst but it never materializes. Just as in real life, these events “are what they are” and where I was expecting a scene of drama/trauma, the character gave an almost throw-away line confirming what I had been fearing and then moved on, which had more impact than a highly dramatic scene would have.

Let me get the narration negative out of the way first because most of it is going to be unashamedly complimentary. I often was unable to distinguish between lines that were internal character narrative and external dialogue when one followed the other. In spite of that, I found the narration in this audiobook to be near perfection and the casting of Ariadne Meyers and Cassandra Morris was inspired. Both narrators infused their delivery with youthfulness and seemed to fully inhabit each character they portrayed, providing excellent vocal differentiation and subtle emotional cues. The two have such different voices that I found myself curious about the level of communication between the two narrators during production. I often find dual narrations distracting because of the differences in how each narrator portrays the same character but with this audio, there were a lot of similarities in tone given to the same character by each narrator, especially given that Ms. Morris’ voice is very light and almost childish and Ms. Meyer’s voice is somewhat rough and lower in pitch. The voice given Mandy ideally conveyed her physical and emotional youth and the vulnerability caused by her mother’s neglect but still portrayed her determination to make a better life and the occasional bitterness she experienced when comparing her life to Jill’s. The chapters from Jill’s POV simply met my ideal narration criteria. I only ever heard the character(s) and never the narrator. I was reminded of an article by audiobook producer/director Paul Alan Ruben where he, in my interpretation anyway, says it’s one thing to vocally manage the syntax but the art in the performance is to leverage the subtext that exists in the spaces between the words and sentences. That’s what I experienced with Ms. Meyer’s narration. This was an excellent story and an above average performance by both narrators and I whole-heartedly recommend this audiobook.


  1. janaya francis :

    this is a great book u inspire as a writer. i am 11 yrs of age.

  2. janaya francis :

    keep up the good work i love all of your books.i am your #1 fan…. exsept for justin bieber i am your #2 fan.

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