How to Save a Life
by Sara Zarr
After a long time I am reading a novel that gripped me from the first page and yet filled me up with each chapter so that I paused to let things sink in and let my thoughts linger for a while. And as I am getting further and the suspense is building I find the drama within my own head as compelling as finding out what happens in the story.
In fact, I am not even done yet. The last two chapters have been particularly powerful. The story is told from two points of view, in alternating chapters. First we hear from Mandy, a teenager who is pregnant and has decided to place the baby for adoption. She does not want to go through an agency or any official route and through an online group she connects with Robin and chooses her to be her baby’s mother. In the next chapter we hear from Jill, Robin’s teenage daughter, who is struggling with grief after the loss of her father nearly a year ago.
As I followed the story through both girls’ viewpoints, I hardly noticed that I was expecting the story to move towards the goal of fulfilling the agreement made in the email we read on page one, that is that Mandy’s baby will be adopted by Robin. Jill is not very happy about this and we see her gradual acceptance and eventual enthusiasm to be signs of progress in the direction set by the story. Mandy is confident that she has made the right decision … until at one point she starts having a doubt. As a reader, I saw this doubt as a sign that we were going off the track and hoping that she would overcome her doubts, just as Jill overcame her resistance to the plan of her mother to adopt the baby.
What invested me as the reader in this plan? What made me think it was better for the story to go according to this plan than to diverge from it?
Why didn’t I for example, root for Mandy to realize that she herself could be a good mother – did I not believe it? Was I too ready to believe her own initial assessment that placing her baby for adoption was for the best? But when Jill resisted this plan, I was rooting for her to change her mind and accept it.
From the beginning we are given the story of Mandy and Robin with a common goal, which is for Robin to adopt the baby to whom Mandy gives birth.
The moment things come apart is reflected in the divergent understanding of a single word – the word is “close.”
Robin comments at one of the doctor’s appointments that it is amazing that they are so “close.”
Mandy understands the word “close” as the closeness she has come to feel with Robin and Jill and even with Jill’s friends.
Robin is thinking of how close Mandy’s due date is. And for Mandy, this date marks the separation of herself from her baby. When the doctor brings up questions of what will happen next – questions for which she has no clear answers – she realizes that from that date her interests and Robin’s interests will no longer be identical.
They could be complementary, though. It could be that Mandy will be able to fulfill her interests with the support of Robin more than she could do on her own – that is what I as a reader would believe. Robin would help Mandy pursue whatever she wanted to do next, train for a job, go to school, whatever it was that she would have wanted to do if she had the means to do it, and had not unintentionally become pregnant. Now with Robin’s support she would have given her baby a good home and also had the means to pursue opportunities she might not have had if she had stayed at home. The one time that we hear Robin encourage Mandy to think about the future, Mandy doesn’t say what she wants to do next.
She writes letters to a man she met on the train, and one imagines that if he wrote back she might go and meet him after entrusting her baby to Robin. Not a smart plan – only serving to reinforce the notion that she would not make a good mother and has made the right choice to provide her baby with a better one.
Why? Why is it so easy for me as a reader to believe that it is better for Mandy to do this? Why is so easy for me to trust Robin to be a better mother to the baby and to do what is good for Mandy as well?
Is it because … I identify more with Robin, educated, poised, successful, than with Mandy, who never had a chance to be any of those things?
After the doctor’s appointment, Mandy considers at all the players so far – the doctor, Robin and Jill, and she realizes that “they’re on the same side.” She worries that anyone else brought into the picture, such as a social worker, would also be on their side. When Robin suggests writing out some formal agreement, Mandy protests and Robin says, as if to reassure her, that the agreement can have anything she wants in it. But for Mandy, anything at all on paper would be on their side.
Mandy asks herself:
“What if we disagree about the right thing? The person with the money and the house and the good job gets to decide.” – p 241
That line shook me to attention. Whose side was I on? Till now I had blithely assumed that what was good according to Robin, the saintly mother figure in the tale, was good for everyone. That itself revealed what little consideration I had for Mandy.
Mandy knows this too. She doesn’t expect anything from the reader. “I’m the only one who’s ever been on my side.” she states flatly on page 241.
Now the tension is building and I am questioning my own loyalties in this story. Why do I want the adoption to go smoothly? Why am I worried about how Robin will feel if Mandy decides to keep her baby, and how Jill will feel seeing her mother devastated again, and that Jill will think poorly of Mandy for changing her mind, breaking her word. Clearly if Robin truly cared about Mandy’s interests she would find a way to enable Mandy to keep her baby, except the premise of the story was that Mandy wanted someone to adopt her baby. “Would you keep your baby if you were in a position to do so?” does not seem to be a question that Robin has asked, partly out of respect for Mandy’s decision, but partly also because she would be afraid of hearing a yes. Others don’t seem to have shied away from asking why she was giving up the baby – and as a reader I was all too readily reassured by Mandy’s confidence that she was doing what was best and her total awe of Robin.
The only happy ending I can imagine is that Robin adopts Mandy and Mandy remains the mother of her child.
Now I shall read the rest of the story. I have about 70 pages left – so there is quite a bit of time for anything to happen.