Friday, June 26, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

Any regular readers out there had to know this was coming. Today I am covering Saint Anything, the newest release from Sarah Dessen. I was late to the Dessen game when I covered both What Happened to Goodbye and The Moon and More about two years ago. Since then, I have been slowly collecting Dessen's other books and reading them apart from this blog. Needless to say, I was excited to get my hands on her latest release and talk about it here.

The Situation: Sydney Stanford feels invisible. At first she was used to simply being in her brother Peyton's incredibly charming and attractive shadow. But as he began to get in trouble, Peyton still continued to be the family's focus, but also the source of their stress and concern. His most recent accident has led to serious jail time, and left a young boy permanently disabled. Even with her brother locked away, Sydney still remains invisible as most of her mother's efforts go towards staying in contact with Peyton and knowing how he is doing, while her father seems to just be trying to stay away, as if in an effort to not face what is happening with is son. Unfortunately, this also means not having much face-to-face time with his daughter.

The Problem: When money gets tight due to the legal fees, Sydney decides on her own to give up her costly private school education at Perkins Day and transfers to Jackson High School instead. This isn't really a problem as Sydney actually makes new friends, two of which are Layla and her older brother, Mac. Layla is actually instrumental in keeping Ames, a very creepy friend of Peyton's, at bay, as he clearly has designs on Sydney. And Mac is a just a great guy who seems to actually see Sydney, something she isn't used to. Unfortunately, her parents still remain preoccupied with her brother, and don't understand her protestations about being alone with Ames. Also, Sydney feels like she is the only one who feels guilty about poor David Ibarra, the young boy Peyton left disabled and wheelchair bound, and that guilt is eating her alive. It seems things are bad enough because of what her brother has done, but Sydney still has plenty of trials ahead, and is hoping her new friends can help see her through. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel told from the point of view of a young girl with an older brother who has been in and out of trouble. His most recent crime has been drinking and driving, and ended with him striking a young boy and leaving him in a wheelchair. While the most the reader can get from Peyton is the occasional phone call, it is clear that Sydney is riddled with guilt, even though that accident had nothing to do with her. Everyone in the family is dealing with this in their own way. Sydney's mom seems intent on ignoring the fact that her son was at fault, something that infuriates her daughter, while her dad seems to want to ignore everything. So Sydney continues to feel invisible until she meets the Chatham family. Dessen has admitted that Sydney's feelings of invisibility are somewhat reminiscent of how she felt as a teen. And in the dedication, Dessen says this book is for the "invisible girls," as well as her readers. Much like in her other books, Dessen has touched on something that is important to many teens and that many will be able to relate to.

My Verdict: I was right to be excited about this book. We have all felt the disappointment of reading a sub-par book by a favorite author, especially after waiting so expectantly for it to come out. That did not happen here. And while I won't say that Saint Anything is Dessen's best work - I know Dessen fans all have their own favorite - it most certainly will not disappoint. Teenage first person narrators can often be annoying, and while Sydney has her faults, she at least didn't grate on my nerves. In fact, I was really rooting for her, cheering her on, and felt proud of her in the moments when she decided to speak up, fight, reach out, or even just break down and sob. She wasn't clueless, and she didn't sit around waiting for someone else to solve her problems. And she certainly didn't believe that all of her problems would disappear if she landed a boyfriend. While the issue with her older brother and how her family is handling it is the primary focus of the story, there is so much more going on and so many other characters to also cheer on. And like many of Dessen's other novels, there are small moments of wonder that make the characters, and the reader, just want to pause in the moment, despite the chaos that is circling around them.

Favorite Moment: When Layla expertly gets Sydney's mother to agree to let her spend the night with just the mention of paint fumes and new carpet. If I explain it more I'll ruin it so trust me, it is glorious.

Favorite Character: There are quite a few to choose from. There is Mrs. Chatham, who has multiple sclerosis and almost always has at least one of her children watching over her. Despite barely knowing Sydney, she takes a genuine interest in her life and listens to her, something she needs. There is also Layla, a pretty straightforward girl with a weird thing about French fries, but who more or less saves Sydney from herself, and others. And there is also Irv, the gigantic black guy who hangs out in Sydney and Layla's group of friends who can't get drunk due to his size and isn't stingy with the occasional piggyback ride.

Recommended Reading: There are many parallels between this story and Jasmine Warga's My Heart and Other Black Holes. Both have female narrators with a family member who has committed a terrible crime and is locked away for it. Now they both feel like they are suffering for their loved one's mistakes. If you are looking for more from Dessen, I recommend Just Listen, one of her earlier novels. 

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