Saturday, August 4, 2012

The life you save may be your own

I mostly hate it when people read a work of fiction (or watch a movie) about a subject about which they know a great deal and then go on at great length about how incorrect everything they read or watched was. It's fiction, I proclaim, cut some slack. If you want facts, head on over to the nonfiction shelves. Yet I found myself doing the same thing while listening to Sara Zarr's latest novel, How to Save a Life. I've read almost all of Zarr's work, but I had a hard time giving this one the fiction slack I insist that others do.

Jill MacSweeney and her mother, Robin, are still reeling from the death of her father in a car accident ten months ago. Jill has cut herself off from her closest friends and feels trapped in loneliness and anger, but now she has something to be really mad about: Her mother has connected online with a pregnant teen -- just one year older than Jill -- and plans to adopt her baby boy. As the novel begins, Mandy has just come to live with Jill and Robin in Denver for the month left before the birth. It will just be an arrangement between Mandy and Robin: No social workers, no lawyers, no secrecy.

And, yet -- of course -- there are nothing but secrets here. Mandy and Jill tell the story in alternating chapters and slowly the onion is peeled and the lies and hurts and other unspoken emotions are exposed.  The characters' growth from pain to healing seemed authentic to me (if a little speedy and overly neat there at the end) and the two voices of the girls were honest and compelling. Everyone in this novel was a real person. Zarr is an expert at characterization, in all of her books the young women (in particular) act and react in age-appropriate ways. They ask the questions that smart teenagers ask. Jill and Mandy are no different.  They aren't very appealing young women though; I cared about them only because I knew they were each in a really shitty place and that I should care (also, see last paragraph).

But what I couldn't get around was the adoption. I used to (20 years ago! yikes!) work at an open adoption agency and while I completely understand that many, many people (both adoptive and birth parents) are operating from fear in this situation and that leads to bad decisions, my brain wasn't able to ignore the fact that the characters on the periphery of this drama (most notably, the obstetrician who needed to re-think who her patient was!) weren't stepping in to say "wait one minute."  OK, totally not fair assessment of a novel for teenagers. It's baggage, I've recognized it and moved on.

(On the other hand, I enjoyed the slight play on words with the name of the bookstore where Jill worked: Margins. Sigh ... a good bookstore gone.)

I am moving on because the narrators were so good.  Ariadne Meyers (heard here in another stellar example of never actually mentioning the narrator) and Cassandra Morris (here) read Jill and Mandy respectively. Morris reads Mandy in her tiny, girlish voice with an underpinning of resolve that lets you know that she's not the under-educated hick that Jill thinks she is. Meyers gives us a goth Jill who seesaws between contempt (both self and external) and unbearable fear as she destroys relationships with everyone around her. Meyers is particularly good at reproducing Morris' unique speech when Jill is describing conversations. Both women can easily manage dialogue and diverse characterizations.

One complaint: This novel contains extensive internal monologues by each character and it was occasionally tricky figuring out what was being said aloud. Context usually helps here, but always after the fact, which always causes a slight ears-to-brain delay with what is being read next.

Unlike the last (and only) Sara Zarr book I listened to, I liked the audio here better than the book itself. The narrators really give the novel a complexity that allows a listener (well, me) to look beyond its flaws. Their vivid characterizations truly turned those young women into lively and honest people.

I've been feeling some youth fiction fatigue lately and wondering what has caused it.  It recently took me nine (!) days to finish a 220-page novel for children!!! It's not just that I read at a glacial pace of 24 pages a day (that's not even a bus ride), it's that I'm not liking it very much. Granted, some unusual things are currently clogging up my concentration, but I clearly need to take a break. Alas, it's simply not possible until the end of the year. Must re-apply nose to grindstone, but I may be over-representing adult stuff in the ears as I seek some literary relief from the young set. Maybe you, oh gentle reader, won't mind that either.

[I cribbed my post title from Zarr's epigraph, who borrowed it from a short story by Flannery O'Connor.  The photograph of O'Connor with fellow Writers' Workshop participants Arthur Koestler (one day I must learn how to crop pictures) and (boyfriend/instructor?) Robie Macauley was taken at the University of Iowa in 1947 and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
Narrated by Ariadne Meyers and Cassandra Morris
Listening Library, 2012.  9:54

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