“The whole world is wilting,” says fifteen-year-old Samara (Sam), the protagonist of Sara Zarr’s YA novel What We Lost.
She means the comment literally because it’s so hot that she wakes up every couple of hours “in a puddle of sweat,” but the observation is also figurative. Sam’s life is full of conflict and chaos. Her father, Charlie, a pastor at the local church, is distracted and every day Sam wakes up to something “ruined or broken or falling apart.”
Part of the problem is that Sam’s mother is currently residing at the New Beginnings Recovery Center in an effort to get sober. Without her mother there, Sam feels adrift. There’s not enough money and Sam is tired of having to pretend that her mom just isn’t feeling well enough to attend church or other social functions. Things get even more complicated when Jody, a thirteen-year-old member of Sam’s church, goes missing and Sam’s small town suddenly becomes a lens through which she is able to see all the world’s flaws, including her own.
I’ve read Zarr’s fantastic book Story of a Girl and her novel Roomies, which she co-wrote with Tara Altebrando, and which I also loved. Zarr has a real gift when it comes to creating empathetic characters and Samara is no different. Her fifteenth summer is a perfect storm of angst and confusion, suspicion and alienation.
I wish I understood what happened between then and now. I wish there was a way to put your finger on the map of life and trace backwards, to figure out exactly when things had changed so much…
As the town searches for Jody, Sam’s dad spends time with her family, acting as a sort of spokesperson. During this time, Sam grows closer to Jody’s older brother, Nick. He “could probably be a model” Sam observes, studying him the way “every girl who has ever known Nick has studied him.”
The problem with their blossoming friendship is that Nick is a suspect in the disappearance of his sister and Charlie doesn’t want Sam to hang out with him. Charlie also doesn’t want Sam to be alone; the town no longer feels safe. Sam is shuttled back and forth between her house and her best friend Vanessa’s. Sam has suspicions of her own; she wonders why her dad is spending so much time with Erin, the church’s youth group leader.
Zarr manages all these threads beautifully, allowing Sam her questions about her faith in God, suspicions about her dad, loneliness for her mom and feelings for Nick to percolate under the hot summer sun.