Spoiler-Free Review: Once was Lost

by Sara Zarr

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“I wonder how you’re supposed to know the exact moment when there’s no more hope.”

Samara Taylor lives in a quiet little town with her loving, happily married, mother and father.  It’s a perfect life! At least that’s what everyone thinks.

The truth is, Sam’s world is falling apart.  Her mother has finally checked into rehab for her drinking problem. Her father, a pastor, has always spent more time dealing with other people’s problems rather than his own family. Now Jody, a thirteen-year-old girl from church, has suddenly disappeared. There is a media firestorm in town, with sightings, and theories, but no answers. The police think she’s already dead, and basically, everyone in their small town is a suspect.

As the case drags on, everyone in town tries to adjust to life without Jody, but Sam doesn’t know how. Sam has always believed in a loving God, a caring God, a God who never gives people more than they can handle, but Sam knows she can’t handle this. As Sam’s world crumbles she starts to question everything, even her faith.

This is more of a slice-of-life story than one with a clear three-act structure. Frankly, this story needed a bit more of a focus. Is it a story about the mystery to find Jody? A tear-jerkier about a community pulling together during a tragedy? A family domestic drama? a first love story? Some focus would have been nice to make the story have a bit more flow.

That being said. I think this was intentional on the author’s part. Life does not have a three-act structure. These plots compete and collide as they would in real life.  This is a good book, but it’s not a normal book, by any means.

Sam’s struggle felt very real. I hate factional characters who take no action to solve their problems, and I don’t care for “Spunky” characters who are awesome at everything. Both extremes bother me. Sam does what she can, but no teen can fix their parent’s rocky marriage or find a missing girl. Zarr was able to write Sam as a humble, smart, and caring person without being boring or annoying. Sam’s drive to make a garden for her mother, like the one at the rehab center, was sweet, and heartbreaking. Something I would have tried to do in her place (complete with the utter incompetence of where to even start.)

The emotional core of this novel is the drama of being part of a pastor’s family, and that is very real to life. I’ve been ‘the pastor’s daughter’ in a small town. (just for the record: we never had this much family drama) I know what it’s like to hide family drama with a smile. The constant pressure to be perfect.  I know what its like for your dad to be a stranger because he is always making time for the church and not you.  I know what it’s like to be your mom’s personal assistant because the pastor’s wife has certain expectations. As I said before, it’s a good book, but it’s not a normal book.

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