I have a complicated relationship with Sara Zarr. My favorite YA blog, Forever Young Adult, touts her as a YA legend–on par with Meg Cabot and Sarah Dessen, and that’s definitely true. She writes well-written, thoughtful books that tackle extremely tough issues such as abuse, teen pregnancy, and alcoholism. I really enjoyed the first book I read (Story of a Girl), because it discussed a sensitive topic like rape with respect and sincerity. However, despite the long-standing Forever Young Adult adoration of Cameron Quick, the (admittedly realistic but wholly unromantic) ending of Sweethearts kind of soured the entire book for me. But I’ll be the first to admit that I read Sweethearts during a very emotional time, and the fact that I got so invested in Jenna and Cameron Quick that I literally cried after I finished the book is more of a compliment than “I didn’t like the ending.” When I got Once Was Lost from the library, I didn’t know much about it. I knew from a Forever Young Adult book review that it was about alcoholism and a pastor’s daughter, but I didn’t know much else. However, once I started reading it, I was hooked.
The Plot: 15-year-old Samara “Sam” Taylor is having a rough summer, on top of a rough life. Her mother (the beautiful, effortlessly perfect pastor’s wife) isn’t as effortlessly perfect as she seems, and a DUI has landed her in a lovely, (expensive) rehab clinic. Sam’s dad, the handsome Pastor Charlie, spends more of his time worrying about what the congregation thinks and hiding his family’s problems than paying attention to the needs of his teenage daughter. Sam worries about money, she worries about her mom and she worries about Erin, the cute, young youth group leader who seems to be spending more time at their house.
Suddenly, everything changes. 13-year-old Jody, another member of the youth group, disappears after church. The small town of Pineview is turned upside down as they search for a missing child who seems to have disappeared into thin-air. Pastor Charlie works overtime to help the family, and Sam can’t quite muster up the courage to cry out “Dad, I need you too.”
The Good: Everything about this book is good. Everything. Sam is so sad and so lost that I just want to take her into my arms and give her a big hug. I also love the mystery surrounding Jody’s disappearance. Sam’s best friend, Vanessa, points out that stranger abductions are rare, and that Jody was probably taken by someone in their town–that anyone could have done it. Sam goes away feeling like she can’t trust anyone–not her dad, not Jody’s parents, not even Jody’s hot older brother, Nick.
And yet Sam and Nick are drawn to each other, attracted by the emptiness mirrored in each other’s lives. Nick is trying to fill the void left by Jody’s disappearance while trying to come to terms with the fact that that void might never be filled–that Jody might never come back. Their blossoming friendship (with the hint of maybe a little something more?) is sweet. They become very close, very fast–a result of the strange circumstances of their lives–but it doesn’t feel rushed or fake; mostly because the characters themselves marvel at how quickly they become friends.
The Bad: I’m gonna have to go with Pastor Charlie, Erin and the congregation here–mostly because of the ripple effect they have portraying pastors, youth leaders and churches everywhere. I know that there are churches and pastors out there like Charlie and the rest, but unfortunately we live in a world where it’s harder to find good representations of the church than it is to find bad. The ending makes up for it (partly), and I still have to applaud Zarr for her easy, unblinking portrayal of the way churches approach money and so-called “shameful” things like alcoholism.
Sam and Nick’s relationship is also a little strange. Sam is definitely attracted to Nick, and it seems like Nick is attracted to Sam, but there are moments when he talks about treating her like a big brother, which confuses both Sam (naturally) and the reader. Does he want to be her boyfriend? Does he want to be her friend? Her brother? The ending is wonderfully ambiguous, because in the end this isn’t a book about romance or about boys–it’s a book about Sam.
The Verdict: Sara Zarr has one more novel I haven’t read–“How To Save a Life.” Unfortunately my library doesn’t have it as an E-Book, so I have to wait for someone to return the hard copy so I can read that. Since I haven’t, I can safely say that this is my favorite Zarr book–the goods outweigh the bads so much that all of my bads have a caveat (“it was weird, but I get why she went there”). If you’re looking for a deep, engrossing read, definitely pick up Once Was Lost–you won’t be disappointed.