I am a huge fan of fantasy and sci-fi books. I mean, I read to escape my life, so why not go somewhere completely out-there? The idea of reading “YA contemporary fiction” didn’t used to appeal to me. I remember going to this secondhand bookshop when I was about 16 and asking the shop lady if she had any young adult books. “We have some Sarah Dessen books. Those are pretty popular with the young crowd,” she said, then proceeded to show me a stack of contemporary fiction novels. *sigh*
Honestly, one of the reasons why I was hesitant to read YA contemporary fiction was because I had this idea that they were filled with and fueled by sex, drugs, alcohol, parties. After all, that’s what’s popular.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I read one of Dessen’s books. My mom had picked up a few of her books at the Goodwill so I had them on my shelves, but I didn’t read any until I joined a book club during my senior year of high school. The first book we read for the book club was Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen, which was one that I owned. It didn’t sound too horrible, so I decided to give it a go.
I loved it.
Dessen gets the struggle of being a teenager; the struggle of being old enough, but not old enough (you know, when you’re a “big girl/boy” who’s expected to be responsible but no one really takes you seriously?). Don’t get me wrong, there are elements of “popular” themes (ie alcohol, parties, etc.) in her books, but they aren’t a main focus. The characters might drink, but they aren’t the obnoxious “Hey, let’s go out and get smashed!” kind of characters. The characters are human beings, with flaws and strengths and actual personalities. They are people.
I found Dessen’s latest novel, Saint Anything, during a trip to Target. It sounded interesting, but I needed to save my money for a new summer wardrobe (apparently my 20-year-old self does not share the same style as my 16-year-old self), and I am always hesitant to buy books that I haven’t read yet. So, even though it was 20% of the cover price and it was a signed copy, I put the book down and requested it from the library.
I finished it about a week after checking it out, and went back to Target to claim that signed copy as mine (deciding that thrift shopping for new clothes was good enough for me).
Sydney has always lived in the shadow of her older brother, Peyton – a situation that becomes even worse when Peyton hits a kid when drunk driving, sentencing the kid to a life of lower body paralysis. Rather than dealing with the stares, whispers, and opinions of her classmates, Sydney decides to transfer to a new school, leaving all associations with Peyton behind her – or so she hopes (and her mother hopes not). A new school brings a new scene – including a new after school scene. Soon, Sydney finds herself drawn out of her Peyton-centered family and into the Chatham family, where she finally feels like she belongs, even if they are just barely more put together than her own family, with Layla’s knack for dating losers, Rosie’s history with drugs, and Mrs. Chatham’s failing health. And then there’s Mac, who Sydney might be falling for, despite Layla’s “no dating the best friend’s brother!” rule. As the front flap says: Saint Anything is Sarah Dessen’s deepest and most psychologically probing novel yet, telling an engrossing story of a girl discovering friendship, love, and herself.
My description barely does it justice, and the front flap barely does it justice. The plot is good, yes, but it’s the entire theme of the book that pulls it together; it’s the characters themselves, and their struggles and battles and victories and losses and journeys.
It’s not just a book about a girl with a brother who has screwed up big time – it’s a book about a girl who feels invisible in her brother’s shadow because everything he does, whether good or bad, is more important than anything that she does. It’s not just a book about a girl finding a cute guy to crush on, fantasize about, and then, finally, go out with – it’s a book about a girl who finds a guy who accepts her and her baggage, and shows her his own baggage, hoping that she’ll accept him, too. It’s not just a book about finding friendship and a “niche” – it’s a book about finding a family that accepts you, flaws and all. As New York Times bestselling novelist Jodi Picoult says, Saint Anything is a poignant and honest story.
Saint Anything resonated with me even though my brother never made a mistake so huge that it landed him in prison, and I believe that it will resonate with many others, too. After all, who hasn’t suffered at the expense of someone else’s poor choices (no matter how big or small)? And who doesn’t want to find that niche – that family – where they and their baggage are welcomed with open arms? I highly recommend this book, especially to teenagers/young adults, and adults who remember what it’s like being a teenager.
Confession: I didn't originally like the title or the cover art. Then I read the book and I think both are brilliant. Sarah Dessen's books always have a way of surprising me!