How to Save a Life
I came up with the genre British Angst Lit to categorize books like Eva Carter’s long and underdeveloped How to Save a Life. In this genre, the story survives entirely on keeping apart its obviously meant-to-be protagonists until the last page, preferably through a variety of missed opportunities, poor communication, and, most importantly, a Third Wheel in the form of an alternate lover for one or both protagonists.
On New Year’s Eve 1999, aspiring doctors and best friends Kerry and Tim are out with their peers. Kerry’s eyes and heart keep going toward Joel, a soccer prodigy already on the way to a pro career. Her crush saves his life: she spots him when he has a heart episode and collapses. Kerry performs CPR while Tim watches, immobilized, until the last minute when he gets himself together just enough to take half the credit for saving Joel. Ironically, Kerry’s willingness to let Tim share the limelight allows her to have her romantic wish fulfilled: when Joel wakes up, he’s angry and hurting and refuses to see the person he thinks saved him – Tim – and spends all his time with Kerry, whose attentiveness and beauty he suddenly becomes aware of. Kerry and Joel fall into sweet, passionate young love, but when Joel learns his heart episode ended his soccer career, he breaks up with Kerry and she flunks her exams, temporarily removing her shot at a medical career. Joel descends into a horrific spiral, transitioning from a mature, dedicated, and ambitious young man into a barely functional drug addict. And Kerry begins work as an emergency dispatcher and starts a relationship with Tim, who is struggling in his medical studies and with his own drug habit (his dealer is Joel).
The book is narrated from the first person perspectives of Kerry, Joel, and Tim, in super short chapters that eventually encompass two decades. While the brevity and time hopping (sometimes years go by in a few pages) keep the pacing snappy, it means that important life and career moments happen off-page and there’s little opportunity to see how the characters end up where/who they are after that big moment on New Year’s Eve. Children are born, affairs begin, and yet we are mostly told about the momentous effects they have on our protagonists – we never get to see those things develop and evolve in any real way. Secondary characters are just a few lines of dialogue and a name, to the point that they feel unnecessary, as if they walked in accidentally on a three-person play starring Kerry, Joel, and Tim.
Kerry is an enigma. In some ways the classic Good Girl who nurtures to the point of enabling, while at other times she’s depicted as “reckless” and somewhat self-sabotaging. She also shows an unpleasant nasty streak toward the end. Joel is convincingly charismatic, but Tim is the guy who gets short shrift in the story. He’s basically Kerry’s Human Romantic Parachute. He’s so obviously her second choice that even his mother openly questions Kerry in front of Tim about whether their romantic relationship has enough chemistry. The final offense to Tim is that he virtually vanishes from the narrative in the third act, dispatched to make way for Kerry and Joel’s final reckoning.
The publisher classifies this as women’s fiction and contemporary romance, the latter of which I dispute aggressively. While this story has an HFN, it is NOT a romance. Kerry and Joel spend years apart, often actively pursuing lives entirely separate from each other, and this gap between them effectively kills the love story. Their raw chemistry and affection for each other as teenagers, which is initially both convincing and endearing, just doesn’t hold up. By the book’s end, they’ve spent too little time together in their lives and on the page to seem as truly made for each other as they once did.
Perhaps surprisingly for a book that clocks in at nearly 500 pages, the ending is rushed and gives no sense of satisfying catharsis. In fact, it feels a little like an insult to the reader who’s hung in for the duration of the odyssey. Had Carter spent more time concluding the story, allowing the lovers a little time to process and savor after such a lengthy, intense journey, How to Save a Life likely would have clawed its way to a low recommend grade. The reason it even merits a C is that it remains eminently readable even when it is unrelentingly frustrating, and the initial flickers of Joel and Kerry’s romance were strong enough to warm this reviewer’s heart.
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