I am a big fan of Sara Zarr’s work (see: Story of a Girl and How To Save a Life), particularly the quiet emotion that permeates her strong, character-driven stories. Once Was Lost is no exception. For a novel that deals with questions of faith, Zarr approaches the subject matter with accessibility and lack of agenda. Sam’s struggle with belief is relatable because it’s anchored in very human emotion and circumstances: while a small community is shaken by the disappearance of a young girl, Sam’s own family is grappling by her mother’s alcoholism and her father’s increasing distance, absorbed into his work as Pastor. Sam also doesn’t quite see herself as belonging; she’s “Pastor Charlie’s daughter” the one who doesn’t get invited to parties, the one everyone is “good” around. With with her mother’s DUI and subsequent admission to rehab, Sam becomes even more alienated from her peers, unable to confide in them and disclose the true nature of her mother’s absence. Sam struggles to reconcile the concept of a loving God with the widening spaces within her family and the devastation wrought by Jody Shaw’s disappearance. As the community draws together for support and comfort, Sam finds her grasp on her faith slipping. Questioning what was once a constant in her life causes a hopelessness to settle into Sam’s thoughts; without the anchor of belief in God, how does she interpret and navigate the world around her? Once Was Lost addresses the question, from Sam’s perspective, of whether doubt and belief can coexist in her world. It’s handled in a subtle, tactful, manner – this undoubtedly a book about faith and religion, but there are themes here that will resonate with a wider audience than those who subscribe to a belief system similar to Sam’s. The relationships in the novel, between family and between friends, are particularly well drawn and nuanced. Sam’s growing isolation, exacerbated by her father’s preoccupation with his congregation, echoes the sense of alienation often experienced in adolescence: Sam isn’t quite sure where she fits in, if she is the person she had always thought herself to be. Then there’s the emotional impact of Sam’s mother being in rehab, and what this means after years of glossing over her alcoholism, and her father’s apparent inability to see his daughter’s emotional struggle. As with Zarr’s other novels, there are no absolutes and not necessarily all the answers. Her characters experience, feel, live with palpable emotion; but they don’t necessarily behave or make the choices the reader would expect. I love that Zarr has enough respect and faith in her characters to write them this way, allowing them to be thorny and complicated, while keeping them close to the reader, making their conflicts real and relatable. Once Was Lost is a quiet, moving novel – rich with authenticity and meaning – that addresses a complex issue in an approachable and balanced manner. And maybe one day I will get around to reviewing Sweethearts..