‘I was used to being invisible. People rarely saw me, and if they did, they never looked close. I wasn’t shiny and charming like my brother, stunning and graceful like my mother, or smart and dynamic like my friends. That’s the thing, though. You always think you want to be noticed. Until you are.’
As a teenager, I absolutely adored Sarah Dessen’s books. I read Just Listen in a day and was hooked from there on, devouring This Lullaby, The Truth About Forever, Lock and Key and Along For The Ride soon after. Her combination of relatable protagonists, tough real-life issues, likeable love interests and kooky side characters always made for an enjoyable and uplifting read.
However, the odd time I’ve returned to her books over the last few years, I’ve felt like the standard has declined a little. I know I’ve read Last Chance and What Happened to Goodbye, but I honestly couldn’t tell you the name of the main characters, let alone the storylines, as I didn’t find them particularly memorable (whereas I could tell you all the names of the characters from the earlier books – Annabel and Owen, Remy and Dexter, Macy and Wes, Ruby and Nate, Auden and Eli…). However, I felt like Saint Anything was a return to form for Sarah Dessen, as whilst I still wouldn’t describe it as one of my favourites (that will always be The Truth About Forever) I really liked it, and found myself starting to feel that familiar feel-good feeling as I read.
Saint Anything opens with Sydney’s charismatic older brother Peyton going to prison following a drunk driving incident that left a local boy paralysed. Whilst Sydney’s parents are preoccupied with their son’s terrible predicament, all Sydney can think about is the victim. In an attempt at a fresh start, Sydney transfers schools and finds herself a new group of friends who accept her for her, and she finally starts to emerge from her brother’s shadow…
After the disappointment of the last couple of Sarah Dessen books I’d read, I really wanted to like this book, so when I started reading the first couple of chapters, my heart sunk a little. It seemed to just be a whole load of backstory involving Peyton, Sydney’s brother, who to be quite honest didn’t seem all that likeable a character for all of his supposed charm. The excessive relating of his history with drugs and alcohol seemed a little forced, and was literally like ‘this happened, then this happened, then this happened’. However, once you got past this, the book really started to pick up and I relaxed a little, as I started to really enjoy the characters and story.
I found Sydney to be super likeable and relatable, and I could totally understand why she feels guilty on her brother’s behalf, seen as no one else seems to have accepted the guilt. Her mother, for example, was a very frustrating character. The way she refuses to accept the terrible thing her son has done and treats his stint in prison like school or daycare was infuriating, and the way it sidelines her relationship with her daughter makes you just want to shake her, however much you can sympathise with her position. Also the way she lets Peyton’s shady friend Ames infiltrate the family is uncomfortable to watch (or read, but you get what I mean!) as you can just see how it’s heading nowhere good.
As tends to happen in a Sarah Dessen book, the main character makes a new, quirky set of friends early on in the book, and in Saint Anything this was Layla and her brother Mac (and the entire of the Chatham family in fact). Layla with her many quirks (being ridiculously specific about how she eats fries, how she never ever forgets a face) and flaws (a horrible taste in men) was an interesting character, and was the kind of person you read about and just want to be friends with yourself. I also really liked Mac, who as quite a quiet, thoughtful character wasn’t your typical ‘love interest’ type character, and came across as a really good guy. Even the more minor members of the friendship group like Eric and Irv stood out in their own way and were memorable.
Plot wise, the book is kind of a slow burner, starting off with a whole load of back story and taking some time to really pick up. However, once it does it’s worth the wait, and leaves you with that optimistic feeling that so much of Sarah Dessen’s work does. Whilst to a certain extent these novels are kind of formulaic (troubled female protagonist meets a new group of friends who totally change her life and make her see things differently), the variations in characters keep them interesting, and the lingering message you’re left with long after is that no matter how bad things get, change could be just around the corner. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing to take away from a book!