Story of a Girl (National Book Award Finalist)


By Sara Zarr

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Now a movie on Lifetime!

I was thirteen when my dad caught me with Tommy Webber in the back of Tommy’s Buick, parked next to the old Chart House down in Montara at eleven o’clock on a Tuesday night. Tommy was seventeen and the supposed friend of my brother, Darren.
I didn’t love him.
I’m not sure I even liked him.

In a moment, Deanna Lambert’s teenage life is changed forever. Struggling to overcome the lasting repercussions and the stifling role of “school slut,” Deanna longs to escape a life defined by her past. With subtle grace, complicated wisdom, and striking emotion, Story of a Girl reminds us of our human capacity for resilience, epiphany, and redemption.


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Table of Contents

A Preview of Sweethearts

A Preview of The Lucy Variations

Copyright Page

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They made us clean out our lockers on the last day of sophomore year. I tore down the class schedule I'd taped to the inside of the door at the beginning of the semester and tossed it into the pile of recycling that already included ninety-five percent of the crap I'd busted my ass to do all year. What was the point of all that so-called learning if, in the end, it was going into the trash? The only stuff I kept was from Honors English. I would deny this if asked, but I thought I might want to read some of my essays again. There's this one from when we read Lord of the Flies. I really got into it, the savagery and survival-of-the-fittest stuff. A lot of kids in my class didn't get it. Jeremy Walker asked, "Why couldn't the boys on the island just get along?"

Then Caitlin Spinelli was all, "Yeah, didn't they know their chances for survival were, like, so much better if they worked together?"

Hello! Walk down the halls of your own school for three seconds, Spinelli: we are savages. There is no putting of the heads together to come up with a better way. There is no sharing of the bounty of popularity with those less fortunate. There is no pulling along of the deadweight so that we can all make it to the finish line. At least not for me. Caitlin Spinelli might have a different perspective, being rich in all the things that would have put her in the surviving tribe.

Anyway, Mr. North wrote on my essay in purple pen. He used red pen to correct spelling errors and messed-up grammar and stuff like that, but when he just wanted to let you know he liked something, he used purple.

Deanna, he wrote, you clearly have much of importance to say.

Much of importance.

"Yo, Lambert!"

Speaking of savages, Bruce Cowell and his pack of jock-wannabes, who'd been kicked off every school team because of attitude problems and/or the use of illegal substances, were right on schedule for their weekly feats of dumbassery.

Bruce leaned up against the lockers. "You look hot today, Lambert."

"Yeah." Tucker Bradford, flabby and red faced, came close and said, "I think your boobs got bigger this year."

I kept sorting through the stuff in my locker, peeling a piece of candy cane left from Christmas off one of my binders. I reminded myself it was the last day of school, and besides, those guys were seniors. If I could get through the next five minutes I would never have to see them again.

However, five minutes is a long time, and sometimes I just can't keep my mouth shut.

"Maybe," I said, pointing at Tucker's chest. "But they're still not as big as yours."

Bruce and the lackeys watching from a few feet away laughed; Tucker got redder, if that was possible. He leaned in with his nasty Gatorade breath and said, "I don't know what you're saving yourself for, Lambert."

This is the thing: Pacifica is a stupid small town with only one real high school, where everyone knows everyone else's business and the rumors never stop until some other kid is dumb enough to do something that makes a better story. But my story had the honor of holding the top spot for over two years running. I mean, a senior getting caught with his pants down on top of an eighth-grade girl, by the girl's father ("No way! Her father? I'd just kill myself!") was pretty hard to beat. That story had been told in hallways and locker rooms and parties and the back of classrooms since Tommy first came to school the morning after it happened. At which time he gave all the details to his friends, even though he knew it meant my brother, Darren, would kick his ass. (He did.) By the time I got to Terra Nova for ninth grade, the whole school already thought they knew everything there was to know about Deanna Lambert. Every time someone in school saw my face, I knew they were thinking about it. I knew this because every time I looked in the mirror, I thought about it, too.

So when Tucker breathed his stink all over me and said what he did, I knew it meant more than just a generic insult suitable for any girl. He reduced my whole life story into one nine-word attack. For that, I had to send him off in style. I started with the middle finger (you really can't go wrong with a classic). I followed it with a few choice words about his mother, and finished by implying that maybe he wasn't into girls.

Right about then I wondered if there were any teachers or otherwise responsible adults around in case Tucker and Bruce and their friends decided to take it beyond words. Probably I should have thought of that sooner.

Bruce chimed in. "Why do you front, Lambert? Why pretend you're not a skank when you know you are?" He gestured to himself and the guys around him, "We know you are. You know you are. And, um, your Dad knows you are, so . . ."

A voice called from down the hall: "Don't you guys have some kittens to go torture or something?"

Jason had never sounded so good.

"You don't even want a piece of this, punk," Tucker said, shouting over his shoulder.

Jason kept walking toward us, with his usual no-hurry slouch, black boots scuffing along the floor like it was just too much effort to pick up his feet. My hero. My best friend.

"Didn't you, like, graduate yesterday?" he said to the guys. "Isn't it a little pathetic to still be hanging around here?"

Bruce grabbed Jason's jeans jacket and slammed him up against the lockers. Where in the hell were the people in charge? Had all the teachers fled for the Bahamas as soon as the last bell rang?

"Get off him," I said.

One of Tucker's friends said, "Come on, man, we don't have time for this shit. We promised Max we'd have the keg there by four."

"Yeah," said Tucker, "my brother only works at Fast Mart for like ten more minutes. After that, we're gonna get carded."

Bruce let go of Jason and gave me one last look, straight into my eyes. "See what a waste of time you are, Lambert?"

We watched them go down the hall and disappear around the corner. I kicked my pile of recycling and watched the papers fly.

"You okay?" Jason asked.

I nodded. I was always okay. "I have to drop off my French book, then sophomore year is officially over."

"About time. What now?"


"Let's go."

After Denny's, we went to the CD store and mocked the music on the listening stations, then Jason tagged along while I picked up job applications from all the stores and food places at Beach Front, a sad, tired strip mall that hardly anyone shopped at since the second Target opened over in Colma. We didn't talk much. I kept reliving Tucker's breath on me as he said what everyone at school probably thought.

Jason and I are okay without talking. That's how you know you really trust someone, I think; when you don't have to talk all the time to make sure they still like you or prove that you have interesting stuff to say. I could spend all day with him and not say a word. I could look at his face all day, too. His mom is Japanese and his dad, who died right after Jason was born, was white. Jay has this amazingly shiny black hair and long eyelashes, with his dad's blue eyes. (Why do guys always have eyelashes girls would kill for?) Frankly, I never understood why girls around here didn't throw themselves at him. Maybe because he's on the quiet side, and short, like his mom. Doesn't bother me, because we're almost the same height and would match up perfectly if there was ever any occasion for matching up.

He's laid-back. He's loyal. He gets it. In fact, the only thing wrong with Jason is that, at the time, he happened to be the boyfriend of my other best friend, Lee.

Unlike Jason, who's known me forever, Lee only recently achieved best-friend status by transferring in from a school in San Francisco and being all cool. Not cool as in dressing right and knowing anything about music or whatever, but cool as in being the kind of person who doesn't try to be someone she is not.

I met her in PE when she did a belly flop off the vault during our lame gymnastics unit. Mrs. Winch kept saying, "Walk it off, Lee, then do it again." I was like, excuse me but I don't think she's breathing, and hell if I'm going to kill myself on that thing, too. We both got a zero for the day and a lecture from Mrs. Winch about our lack of "gumption."

I watched her around school after that. She's slightly on the dorky side, with this short hair that never does anything right and clothes that fall just on the wrong end of trying too hard. I figured the slightly-on-the-dorky-side group at school would take her in pretty quick — you know, the drama geeks and college entrance club people — but I watched her for a while and she didn't have anyone. Which meant she probably hadn't gotten connected enough to know about me yet. So I started talking to her and got a feeling, like she was different from most of the other girls who only cared about how they looked and were always talking smack about their supposed best friends.

Once we started hanging out, she told me that her real dad's a drunk and she didn't know where he was, and I told her that's okay, my dad hates me. When she asked why, I told her about Tommy. It felt good to be able to tell my version instead of Tommy's, the one that everyone at school knew. After I told her, I got worried she wouldn't like me anymore or she'd start acting weird around me, but she just said, "Well, everyone has stuff they wish they could change, right?"

So I guess it's my own fault Jason hooked up with her. I kept talking about Lee this and Lee that and Jay you should get to know Lee; you'd like her. He did.

I didn't care, really. Everyone knows that if you start fooling around with your friends, you can kiss what's best about your friendship good-bye. I tried to see it like I had the better end of the deal, that if Lee and Jason broke up, they probably wouldn't hang out anymore, whereas I would still get to be his friend.

Once in a while, though, something little would happen, like they'd be walking down the hall at school holding hands and I'd see them but they wouldn't see me, and first I'd think, God are they cute together! And then it felt like I was watching something superprivate, something that he had only with her. I always thought I knew him better than anyone, but once they started going out it was like Lee was some kind of insider in a way that I wasn't.

Jason and I still had our days, like the last day of school, when it was just us, and even though it sounds semidisloyal to say this, times like that I pretended Lee didn't exist.

Until he'd start talking about her.

". . . I got a text from Lee during fourth," he was saying. Our bus wound its way down Crespi Drive and into the flats, where we both lived. "They were on the beach in San Luis Obispo."

She and her family had left that morning for Santa Barbara, to pick up her brother from college. "When's she coming back?"

"Day after tomorrow. Her stepdad has to get back to work."


The bus heaved to a halt at my stop, the stop I'd been getting off at my whole life, in front of a mold-gray house a few doors down from ours, with five cars parked on the lawn — cars that had been there since the dawn of time, at least.

"Call me tomorrow," Jason said.


It was the worst part of every day, when the bus got to my stop and I had to leave Jason, him still rolling, still on his way to something, while I'd reached the daily dead end known as my house.

I stood outside the front door for my usual count of ten before walking inside. One, two . . . don't notice how the garage door doesn't hang straight . . . three, four, five . . . forget about the broken flowerpot that's been in a heap on the lawn since last summer . . . six, seven . . . it's okay, everyone leaves their Christmas lights up all year . . . eight . . . the front porch is a fine place for a collection of soggy cardboard boxes . . . nine . . . oh, forget it, just turn the knob and go in already.

Ten is everything else: the smell of mildew that never goes away, the five steps over green shag to go from the living room to the kitchen, the Pepto-pink walls of the kitchen, and, finally, my parents.

"You're home late." Dad, compact and self-contained, an island on a kitchen chair, didn't look up from his dinner when he said it. "Better get started on your homework."

"It was the last day of school, Dad."

His fork paused for a second, then he kept eating. "I know. I'm just saying that I hope you plan to stay out of trouble this summer." As if I'd been in all kinds of trouble, which I hadn't, not for a long time. "Did you hear what I said?"


Mom's cheery voice chimed in the way it always does when she sees a subject that needs changing. "Why don't you sit down and have some dinner with us?"

"I ate."

"Well, then, dessert," she said, heaping more food onto Dad's plate, her dyed and fried hair falling over her face. "How about some ice cream?"

Mom's favorite phrases are:

1. Your father just isn't very expressive. (Interchangeable with Just because he doesn't say he loves you doesn't mean he doesn't feel it.)

2. We simply need to put it behind us; be a good girl and it will be all right.

3. How about some ice cream?

"Is Darren home from work yet?" I asked.

"Stacy just left for work and to drop off the car," Mom said. "Or pick up the car. I can never remember how it works."

Darren still lived at home, which wasn't exactly the plan — not for him, not for my parents. When his girlfriend, Stacy, got pregnant and decided to keep the baby, their only option was to move into our basement and give up on anything resembling a plan.

He and Stacy both worked at Safeway — Darren days and Stacy nights — so that one of them could always be with the baby, April. Which was a good system, I guess, except that they never saw each other unless they were handing off the keys to their one car.

"Stacy got out of here late, as usual," Dad said. "She's lucky they don't fire her."

"She's made employee of the month twice," I reminded him as Mom handed me a bowl of fudge brownie ice cream that I hadn't asked for.

Dad waved his napkin. "It's no excuse." He liked Stacy about as much as he liked me.

"Oh, I don't know," Mom said, "I'm sure they give her a little leeway, being a new mother and all . . ."

I set my ice cream down and left them there to discuss Stacy's career while I went in search of the one person in the house I actually wanted to talk to.

She was in her car seat on my parents' bed, all mellow from her afternoon nap. "Hi, April," I said, picking her up. I kissed her little face for a while and took her to my room: my ten-by-twelve piece of unoccupied territory, my piles of clothes and my CDs and my macaroni-art Thanksgiving turkey from third grade, still hanging over my bed. I spread a blanket on the carpet, laid April on her stomach, and sat next to her.

I was there when April was born. I didn't really want to be. From what I'd seen in health ed and also in movies and on ER, with all the screaming and pushing and blood and slime and sweat, I'd just as soon wait to see the baby after it was clean and dried and fed and, most importantly, asleep. It was Darren who wanted me in the delivery room. He said it was because Stacy was upset that her mom refused to come, and she wanted another girl there. But I knew that Darren was nervous; he didn't want to be there alone if anything went wrong.

Nothing went wrong. I didn't actually see April come out, thank God. I stood up at Stacy's head and stayed focused on her and tried to block out all the noises and smells. When Darren said, "Holy shit, she's here," I looked up and saw April in his hands, shaking all over and wailing like she was beyond pissed. It was amazing, really.

It took me a while to get used to her. All she did was cry and poop and sleep, and to be honest, she was kind of ugly. Plus there were so many rules about how to hold her and feed her; I was too stressed to enjoy it. Then she got less ugly and made more interesting sounds and wasn't so fragile. And everything changed when she started to recognize my voice. There was something about the way she got quiet and turned her head to me when I talked that made me feel like maybe I wasn't such a screwup after all.

When I was with Darren and Stacy and April, I could picture us going on forever. I imagined coming home from school to wherever we all lived — not at my parents' house, obviously — and April would be waking up from a nap, maybe, and Stacy would say, Hey, Deanna, thank God you're home. I need a break and you're so good with April. . . . Would you watch her while I go get Darren from work? And I'd say, Sure, no problem, take your time. And I'd play with April, maybe, like, an educational game so that she'd get smart, and Darren and Stacy would come back and we'd eat dinner and I'd do my homework while we all watched TV. I mean, I knew it wouldn't be perfect like that all the time, but it would be home.

This was my plan:

I'd get a job, right, and work my butt off all summer, then Darren and Stacy and me would pool our money and find a place. I hadn't told anyone yet; it was all about timing. I wanted to wait until I had a stack of cash saved up. I already knew exactly how I'd tell them: I'd get all my money out of the bank — in tens and twenties, so that it looked like a lot — and go down to the basement to show Darren and Stacy. I'd do it some night when Dad was really off his chain, driving us nuts, and I'd throw it on the bed without a word.

Stacy would get all hyper and Darren would just count it, looking up at me like, Wow, that's my little sister.

It would be obvious, then. They'd see how much easier things would be with me around.



"Deanna Lambert is a total nympho. Tommy would be at her house, right, hanging with Darren. As soon as Darren leaves the room, Deanna comes around and tells Tommy all this nasty stuff she wants to do with him. This one time? She told Tommy that she knew where Darren kept his porn magazines and she wanted Tommy to look at them with her. And do all this . . . stuff. Tommy's like, No way, you're too young, I could get arrested, but she begged him and begged him and finally he took her out. I heard that when her dad caught them, it took her forever to get out of the car because she was into getting tied up. What a slut!"

"Deanna Lambert is a complete psycho. Tommy liked her at first because he thought she was sweet and cute. Then they started going out and she'd be cutting herself, or all cranked on meth, or coming up with crazy ideas like they should bomb the school or whatever. When he tried to break up with her, she was like, I'm gonna kill myself if you leave me, Tommy! What a nightmare!"

"Deanna Lambert is beyond pathetic. Tommy first met her when he found her crying in the backyard at Darren's house. She said no one loved her, no one paid any attention to her, and pretty soon she's hanging on to Tommy like he's the one who's going to fix everything. Yeah, Tommy Webber. I know. Well, he felt sorry for her. He took her out for ice cream this one time when Darren wasn't home, thinking it would cheer her up, but she acted like he'd proposed or something. She kept calling him and calling him and finally he's like, Okay, I'll go out with you but remember I'm seventeen and if you want to be my girlfriend, well, you gotta do stuff. She said, Anything, I'll do anything you want. What a loser. I mean, get some self-respect."


The stories in my head about the girl on the waves, the story I started that night with Tommy, didn't get onto paper until I had Mr. North for English. One time in class he said we should keep a journal, and I thought, no thanks, that whole dear diary thing is so fourth grade. Then he said a journal could be anything, like drawings or poetry or lists or whatever, anything you wanted to say about anything and no one else would ever see it. Jeremy Walker said, "Then what's the point? Are you saying we don't get credit?"

"The point," Mr. North said, sweeping a floppy piece of gray hair over his forehead, "is to have a place to express your personal feelings. You do have personal feelings, don't you, Jeremy?"

Everyone laughed, ha ha ha, and Mr. North hardly ever mentioned journals again, but I bought a two dollar comp book at Walgreens and started writing down these little things about the girl, just random stuff. The girl on her surfboard, the girl with her family, the girl on the beach, whatever.

One day I read what I had and thought, God but that sucks, ripped out the pages and threw them away. I mean, Mr. North said, "Express your personal feelings." He didn't say, "Write a bunch of boring crap-ass nonsense about a made-up person doing nothing."

The weird thing is, after I tore those pages up? I missed her. I missed the girl in my head. So I started in again, this time staying away from the once-upon-a-time stuff and trying to stick to "personal feelings."

Personal feelings I didn't want to feel, I gave to her.

Like if my dad spent yet another evening ignoring me and I started thinking about how I'd worshiped him when I was a kid, I might write:

The girl remembered running down the driveway toward him, cement cold under her tiny feet.

She's been waiting, always waiting, for him to come home. It is the best part of the day.

I was working on some of that stuff the next morning, when Lee called to let me know she'd gotten back from Santa Barbara.

"It's nice," she said, "but I wouldn't want to live there. Lots of tall, blond people with really white teeth. I feel like a troll whenever I visit. Oooh, look at that short person with brown hair! How did she get in?"

I studied the page in my comp book.

The girl thought of the sea, rolling and thick and dangerous.

The girl thought of the sea, flat and steely. Dead.

"That's one good thing about Pacifica," I said, closing the book and letting it drop to the floor. "You can be totally average and still look better than half the population."

"Save me from my family, Deanna. My mom is having a 'sing-along to Simon & Garfunkel while we clean the house' kind of morning."

I smiled into the phone at Lee's deadpan delivery. The girl cracks me up. "I'm going down to Beach Front later to drop off job applications. Wanna come with?"

"Let's meet at the donut shop," she said. "I've been donut deprived. I don't think people in Santa Barbara are allowed to eat donuts."

I got dressed and went down to the basement to see what Stacy and April were up to.


  • "Sara Zarr's first novel tells an engrossing story with exquisitely drawn characters. Story of a Girl is the rarest mix: It's both impossible to put down and the kind of book that stays with you long after you've finished reading it."
    John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska
  • "This is a hell of a good book."
    Chris Crutcher, author of Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes
  • "Throws a sharp right hook at the assumptions people make about girls who have sex early."
    E. Lockhart, author of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and The Boyfriend List
  • "A heartfelt, realistic novel about being defined by one moment, one choice, and then having to reinvent who you are....An evocative, thoughtful read from a debut author to watch."
    Cynthia Leitich Smith, author of Jingle Dancer and Indian Shoes
  • * "Realistic fiction at its best. Zarr's storytelling is excellent....An emotionally charged story...recommended for both teens and the adults who live and work with them."
    School Library Journal (starred review)

On Sale
Jun 20, 2017
Page Count
224 pages

Sara Zarr

About the Author

Sara Zarr was raised in San Francisco, California, and now lives with her husband in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is the author of The Lucy Variations, How to Save a Life, What We Lost, Sweethearts, and the National Book Award finalist Story of a Girl. Her website is

Learn more about this author