When I tried to think of how to describe a Sara Zarr book, the first description that came to mind was that they were like sharing a comfortable, content silence with your best friend. Each of her works is quiet, thoughtful, and emotional. Often they deal with serious issues without ever seeming like an “issue book.” They are very character driven and realistic in their portrayal of tougher topics, never creeping over to the side of melodrama.
1. REALISTIC PARENTS
Yes, I’m back here again. In a world overflowing with absentee parents in YA novels, the ones that show parents present and constantly affecting their child stand out. Zarr brings the reader parents whose physical presences don’t necessarily combat the emotional distance between them and their child. This is the case with Deanna’s father in Story of a Girl, who stopped communicating with his daughter when he caught her having sex with someone at the age of thirteen. His attitude compounds the damage done by the slut shaming Deanna faces on a regular basis from her peers. Another case of the present-but-not-all-here father occurs in Once Was Lost, where protagonist Samara deals with the absence of both parents while her mother is in rehab, despite the fact that her preacher father is still there. His tendency to take care of his congregation before his family starts to break their fragile unit even more.
2. PORTRAYAL OF LONELINESS
Zarr expertly explores the feeling of isolation in multiple books, including How to Save a Life, in which co-protagonist Jill feels lost and alone after the death of her father, the parent to whom she was closer and more similar. The scene where Jill plays one of her father’s records just to sit there and cry is so real and full of grief. She doesn’t know how to let others help her with the grief; she wants to meet it herself. Only through building relationships with Mandy and Ravi does Jill learn how to open herself up to her mother and sometimes boyfriend Dylan.
In Sweethearts, both Cameron and Jenna were complete social outcasts as children, cut off from their (wretched) classmates. While it was upsetting to see how alone and miserable Jenna during her childhood, it was this complete isolation that allowed her and Cameron to create the intensely devoted friendship/love between them. It was them against the world, or against their classmates and Cameron’s terrifying father.
Zarr places a lot of importance on the concept of friendship in her stories, something that can clearly be seen when looking at the relationship between Cameron and Jenna in Sweethearts and the friendship between Jill and Mandy in How to Save a Life. The Lucy Variations provides another example. Lucy ends up the odd one out in the piano dynasty that is her family when she quits mid-recital. Due to her grandfather’s pressure and harsh attitude, she cuts herself off from playing piano as well. Her friendship with her brother’s new teacher Will helps her realize that music still belongs to her, despite what her family might think. Their friendship, though far from perfect, helps bring her back to the piano and figure out the next step in her life.
Want to feel emotionally connected to a contemporary novel? Of course you do. For a thoughtful, beautifully written read, check out any of Sara Zarr’s books. Seriously, I’d recommend them all (though if we’re playing favorites here, How to Save a Life and Sweethearts are my personal picks). And look forward to Roomies, her collaboration with Tara Altebrando that shows two college roommates forming a friendship via email before they ever meet, coming in December 2013!