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October 19, 2011

Book Notes - Sara Zarr "How to Save a Life"

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book. Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, and many others.

With her new novel How to Save a Life, Sara Zarr once again proves herself a master storyteller. Zarr tells the story of two teenage girls, one pregnant and the other grieving her lost father, by expertly weaving together their unique and realistic narrative voices.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"Told from the perspectives of both Jill and Mandy in alternating chapters, this moving story explores love, loss and whether a family can be more than the sum of its parts. Jill's cynicism is the perfect counterpart to Mandy's hopeful naivete. Likewise, Mandy's vulnerability highlights Jill's tough independence. Woven together from two simple threads, the resulting tapestry is as beautiful as it is real."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.


In her own words, here is Sara Zarr's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, How to Save a Life:


The storytelling duties of How to Save a Life are shared by two narrators: Jill is a cynical seventeen-year-old grieving the death of her father and wondering what's next for her as she heads toward graduation. Mandy, eighteen, is pregnant and basically alone in the world. She's naive, but also world-weary and wise in her own way. As the book opens, Mandy is on a train from Omaha to Denver to meet Jill and Jill's mother, who plans to adopt her baby.


"Southbound Train," by Nanci Griffith

My heart is on the baggage rack / It's heavy as can be
I wish that I could find someone / Who would carry it for me

This is Mandy's song--in so many ways the lyrics literally reflect her story. It's also her voice. Griffith has that childlike, almost wispy way about her, vocally, though her voice is at the same time strong and versatile. That's Mandy.

"Adventures In Solitude," by The New Pornographers

Jill, in her pain and grief (and guilt over things about her relationship with her dad that she regrets), pushes away everyone who cares about her. She's at risk of completely losing herself to cynicism and grief, and the people around her feel helpless to do anything about it. This song is so incredibly gorgeous, lyrically, and there's a tenderness about it, musically. Those things work together to both acknowledges the wounds and offer hope.

"Twice If You're Lucky," by Crowded House

Yes, Crowded House is still around and doing great work! This is from their newest album, Intriguer. There's a third character in How to Save a Life, who doesn't get to share in the narration but is as much of the story as Mandy and Jill. That's Jill's mother, Robin, who deals with the loss of her husband by looking for ways to bring new life back into her world. I don't know if this song is about adoption, but it's definitely about second chances later in life, being open to change and to saying yes to good things, which is a lot of what the book is about. The repeated refrain: You will love this one / You will love this one is joyous.

"A Heart Needs a Home," Richard & Linda Thompson

In an early draft of the book, I alluded to this song directly as being special to Robin and her husband, Mac, and also to Jill and her on again/off again boyfriend. Ultimately, it didn't work to keep it in--it's always a little awkward using songs in novels to sort of say what you should figure out how to say in the story itself. Anyway, it's a beautiful song and the spirit behind it remains in the final version of the book. That is: we all need home, and we're all looking for home in some way, and it's usually found not in a building or a geographical location, but in the people who we let truly know us.

"Try a Little Tenderness," by Otis Redding

And now I will contradict myself! I do use this song in the book, directly. Jill and her dad were a lot alike, which is part of the pain Jill experiences in losing him. He could be thorny, like Jill, and the song was their special code. As Jill explains it: "Try a little tenderness" was our polite way of saying to each other, "You're being an asshole." I also like the idea of weariness that Otis expresses so exquisitely in the opening lines of the song.

"The High Road," by Broken Bells

In the writing of every book, there's one album that becomes my Pavlovian cue to get into the head space of the story and start writing. For this book, it was the first Broken Bells CD. This is the opening track, and I'd hear those first synth notes and feel in my body that I was walking into Jill and Mandy's world. And it happens to be a song about loss and strength and change. The harmonies in the bridge are sort of Beach Boys-esque and haunting. Really great writing music, the whole album.

"Lookin' Good," by Say Hi

This is the song that rolls over the end credits of the movie version. I've never written such a relentlessly happy and hopeful ending as I did for this book. I remember thinking, as I wrote it, "I think I want to give these ladies a happy ending. Can I? Dare I?" The characters go through so much to get to the end of this part of their story. And, hey, sometimes things really do work out in amazing ways that inspire gratitude and joy. That's the feeling this song gives me. If I'm in an anxious mood, I put it on, and those opening guitar strums just do something great to me.


Sara Zarr and How to Save a Life links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Abby the Librarian review
All-Consuming Books review
Angieville review
The Book Smugglers review
Deseret News review
Kirkus Reviews review
Owl and Sparrow review
Sara Ockler review

The Book Case interview with the author
Cracking the Cover interview with the author
Deseret News profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Once Was Lost
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Sweethearts
Writers Read post by the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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