How far would you go to save the life of your true love? In “How to Save a Life,” co-authors Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke explore this concept in a touching novel that has more than a few “Groundhog Day” movie references. It also has a wonderfully imperfect first person narrator who either lunches or talks to his mother daily, wears his shirts buttoned up one button too many, and looks both ways before crossing the street — always. Dom is just not the adventurous type, and he wonders if that’s what made him fall in love with Mia a decade ago.
At the start of the novel, we do get a glimpse into the past, and we are there when Dom proposes to Mia in a perfect beach setting. Their love seems to know no bounds, and they seem destined to have a wonderful life together. But then we move to the present, June of 2020, and we realize that Dom and Mia are not together. In fact, they meet by accident in a coffee shop and Dom learns that Mia just moved back to the San Diego area from her home in the Chicago suburbs.
Dom is thrilled. Mia is the one who got away; the girlfriend he’s never been able to get over. He’s not had a serious relationship since theirs, and every single day he regrets ending their engagement. Could this be the chance to make up for the past ten years? Could he ever get her to forgive him for his rejection of her?
They agree to go out on Thursday night, and in his effort to impress Mia, Dom agrees to go to the county fair. He hates frightening rides and the cheesy games, but Mia loves them. Dom even agrees to go on one of the scariest rides, but then something terrible happens and Mia ends up dead. Dom can’t believe that after ten years without her, the first time they go out she is killed. He makes a wish at the hospital — that he had been given a chance to save Mia’s life.
It’s not a surprise when we realize that Dom wakes up on the same Thursday he had experienced already. The same music is playing on the alarm, his roommate and best friend is making the same breakfast, everything is exactly the same. Or it is until Dom decides to change things. He’s not sure what’s going on and thinks it was a dream until the day plays out just like the previous day — he knows what will happen, what people will say to him, and, at the news station where he works, he knows what events will be newsworthy.
Because of his “dream” about the fair, Dom invites Mia to dinner at his apartment. She dies. As each Thursday rolls by in succession, we get more involved, we learn more about Dom and Mia, and we see Dom’s frantic attempts to stop Mia from dying each night. But, as in “Groundhog Day,” each day gives Dom new insight on his own life, his own mistakes, and even on Mia’s imperfections. But each day also gives him another chance to save the woman he loves, the only woman who’s mattered to him. The one he let get away — the one he unforgivably drove away.
We get more and more invested in Dom and his roommate, Lance. We see Dom change. He becomes kinder, and because each day repeats, he has a chance to view those around him more clearly, and that changes his preconceptions and even his biases. We start to like Dom more, and we root for things to work out. Surely, on one of the repeating Thursdays, he will be able to somehow save Mia.
The ending is unexpected. But Fenton and Steinke have cushioned the blow, and it’s also very satisfying. It’s certainly a book with a moral, but it’s not a moralistic read. It’s an engrossing story of love and acceptance and change.
Don’t miss Steinke and Fenton’s other books like “The Two Lila Bennetts” and “The Good Widow.”
First published on Bookreporter.com.