Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr
Samara Taylor used to believe in miracles. She used to believe in a lot of things.
When your father’s a pastor, it’s hard not to buy in to the idea of the perfect family, a loving God, and amazing grace. But lately, Sam has a lot of reasons to doubt. Her mother lands in rehab after a DUI and her father seems more interested in his congregation than his family. When a young girl in her small town is kidnapped, the local tragedy overlaps with Sam’s personal one, and the already worn thread of faith holding her together begins to unravel. (Goodreads)
Here’s the scoop:
Sam is a pastor’s daughter. People seem to expect that she has a perfect life, complete with unyielding faith, an incredible father and a flawless mother. And worse, no one, not even her closest friends are real with her. Everyone turns on their nicest smile and displays their very best behavior (or in the case of her pals, they don’t always invite her to outings they might not want their church to know about) because she’s the PK (Pastor’s Kid). There’s really no fitting in.
Unfortunately for Sam, life just isn’t what everyone thinks it is. While her father spends hours every week shepherding and guiding his congregation, he has little time for his own family. He’s not a bad guy, in fact, he’s a very nice man—but even when he’s home he’s completely distracted by work. Sam adores her mother, but she’s gone, sent to a court-ordered rehab after a recent DUI. The premise of perfection was too much for her to the point that she drank her days away. No one in church, not even Sam’s closest friends, know the nature of her mother’s absence. They all send their well-wishes for her health, all the while having no idea how life-altering this change truly is.
Sam feels a strange connection to Jody, a young girl from her church who goes missing. Though Sam cannot claim to know Jody well, she is desperately moved by her disappearance. It’s as though Jody is linked to her, as both girls are, in one way or another, lost. While Jody is physically missing and the entire town is searching for her, Sam finds herself feeling alone and frightened by the fact that she is no longer certain of her own faith. She wonders if her beliefs are truly hers or if they’re really only something passed down from her parents. She’s angry at her father for allowing their family to come to this place. While was helping others hold together in their times of need, her mother was silently falling apart and it was Sam who was busy trying to pick up the pieces. Now, in Sam’s time of need, her father still can’t see her cry for help.
I adored this book. It could be because I’m a Christian and thus, I related to Sam’s struggles and in her questioning God’s hand in the things she doesn’t understand. It’s difficult to be a teenager, but sometimes I think it’s even harder to be when you have the expectations of your church peers in addition to the normal pressures of adolescence. And as parent, I too wonder where my faith ends and my children’s begins. All of this aside, you don’t have to be super-religious to love this book. It’s simply a good story that I related to on a very personal level.
Sam is a character with a wealth of emotions, many stemming from the dramatic strains of her life, and some dealing with the normal issues tied to growing up. Her grief over her mother’s absence is very real without being completely depressing. While her parents are loving and equally flawed—something Sam sees honestly—they each cave in different ways under the weight of the expectations placed upon them. Their family is in such a fragile state and it’s both Sam’s willingness to admit this to herself, as well as her honest questions about life and faith, that carry this story.
While the search for Jody is very intriguing and left me guessing as to her whereabouts, it was Sam’s urgent need to find her that truly gripped me. It was as if Sam’s hope in God and in herself were inextricably linked to Jody’s well-being. As the reader I was engrossed then, not only for Jody’s sake, but for the sake of Sam and her own spiritual struggle.
As always, Zarr’s simple, elegant writing style is easy to read while still conveying such weighty themes and depth of emotion. I loved Sam. I even grew to love her parents. I felt the struggles they faced and the questions it brought about. And I thought Zarr answered it all perfectly.
Crush Intensity: 4.5/5
I want to believe the way I used to, when my dad and mom or sometimes both of them would pray with me at night and I would picture God listening, kind-eyed and bearded. He was real to me, as real as my own parents. I don’t know when God stopped being someone I saw as my friend, and turned into something I’m mostly confused about.
Things that happen in your house, with your family, are personal. How do you talk about finding the spaghetti sauce lid in your dinner or the ice-cube trays full of water in the towel closet? How do you talk about helping your mom put on her lipstick, so carefully, because her hands are shaking, so that it looks as perfect as she needs it to look before she can face the world?