A 52-year-old American professional woman, devastated by the recent loss of her husband, decides to adopt an as yet unborn baby to fill the hole in her life. Through a website she invites a pregnant teenager into her house for a couple of months before the birth. After this, the intention is that the teenager should go on her way, leaving the baby behind. Jill, the 17-year-old daughter of the house, violently opposes the scheme and suspects pregnant Mandy from the start.
What happens next could so easily have turned into one of those glutinous fictional love-ins, with everyone finally coming round to each other as every emotional and practical problem gradually disappears. But How to Save a Life is better than this. It is told as if by both Jill and Mandy, taking it in turns to take the story forward. Grumpy, grieving Jill comes over as a real person in a permanent state of self-loathing. Mandy is both innocent and devious, escaping from an appalling childhood but determined not to lose out now. The mindless affluence Jill and her mother so take for granted may grate with some readers, and the intensity of the family’s mourning for dead Dad risks making even Queen Victoria’s life-long grieving for her Albert look under-stated. But this is ultimately a clever, perceptive novel, always aware of the extent of the various misunderstandings existing between characters, with Mandy particularly baffled by the unaccustomed middle class mores she now finds herself surrounded with. A little soft-centred towards the end, this is still an excellent read.