I’ve been reading Sarah Dessen’s books since I was twelve years old. Honestly, I think nostalgia for how much I loved them at that time is a big part of the reason I keep reading them even past my YA contemporary appreciation days. I almost didn’t even pick up Saint Anything because her last release, The Moon and More, didn’t impress me much. But I loved the carousel cover and it was the only one I hadn’t read–so I picked up Saint Anything last week.
About the book: Sydney’s brother is in jail. That’s the first thing anyone thinks when they look at her, and she can’t seem to escape his infamous legend of misbehavior. Even at home her parents only see her as another possible delinquent, when they see her at all. She thinks switching schools will give her the fresh start she needs, but really it’s the family at the pizza parlor across the street from her new school who make her see that there truly is more to her life than her brother. Layla befriends Sydney immediately, but it’s Layla’s brother, Mac, who really catches Sydney’s attention. The three become close friends, along with the rest of their group, and even Layla and Mac’s parents forge a healthy relationship with her that Sydney is lacking with her own parents. It isn’t quite enough for Sydney to forget what her brother has done, or even necessarily forgive him for the far-reaching consequences of his actions that have affected her own life, but it opens her eyes to change and reminds her that there’s more than one side to every situation.
“When faced with the scariest of things, all you want is to turn away, hide in your own invisible place. But you can’t. That’s why it’s not only important for us to be seen, but to have someone to look for us, as well.”
This book starts a little slow; it’s full of abstracts and background that feel somewhat forced, but past the first couple of chapters the story takes off with the usual atmosphere and depth of character that Sarah Dessen’s novels often employ. Sydney, her brother Peyton, and her friends Leyla and Mac, are complex and fully present in the story, and ultimately drive the plot forward with their development. Saint Anything is an exploration of family and blame, love and accountability. It’s an introspective look at a difficult situation–a brother spending time in jail–while also closely examining more common and relatable themes: how to be a younger sibling without being overshadowed, how to deal with overprotective parents, how to secure the right kind and amount of attention every child deserves from their family and friends.
This book is no soap opera of tragic betrayals and unlikely events. It doesn’t follow the typical YA romance structure. It’s a novel about an ordinary teen living an unexpected life, and learning, as we all must do, how to keep moving forward.
“That was just it. You never knew what lay ahead; the future was one thing that could never be broken, because it had not yet had the chance to be anything. One minute you’re walking through a dark woods, alone, and then the landscape shifts, and you see it. Something wondrous and unexpected, almost magical, that you never would have found had you not kept going. Like a new friend who feels like an old one, or a memory you’ll never forget. Maybe even a carousel.”
Best aspect: all of the food. The pizza parlor in which Sydney meets her new friends is a key setting in this novel, as is the truck Mac drives for deliveries. Layla is a french fry connoiseur, and everyone loves lollipops. There are plentiful food scenes to leave readers’ mouths watering, and they make this book feel as much like a meal at times as a novel. Reading about water in any form–drinkable or not–make me unbearably thirsty, but reading about food is like experiencing all the deliciousness without any of the calories.
Worst aspect: the creepy family friend who keeps trying to work his way farther into Sydney’s life. I had difficulty pinpointing how Sydney’s brother or parents could have befriended this guy, but more importantly I hated that Sydney kept having “bad feelings” about him that her peers obviously shared and not even trying to talk to her parents about him. At some point, she should have told them outright that he makes her uncomfortable. She should have described the awkward situations he puts her into outside of their supervision. I understood why this guy had a place in the story, but I didn’t understand why Sydney was so hesitant to make her parents see what the problem was. I could see how she would think they wouldn’t believe her easily, but I thought she was a strong enough character to at least try making her case, and I wish she would have done so sooner.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I was afraid at first that I had grown out of my enjoyment of Sarah Dessen books, but once I got past the awkward start and into the meat of the novel I was surprised by how much I cared for the characters and how invested I was in their futures. I read this book even faster than I thought I would, and was even sad when it ended. I will probably be picking up Dessen’s next upcoming release later this year because I had such a good experience with Saint Anything. This isn’t a book for everyone–the romance is definitely a slow-burn one, and even that isn’t the main focus of this story. I suppose I would label it as a coming-of-age book, primarily focused on discovering self-identity and voice.
- If you’re interested in reading more Sarah Dessen works, try my personal favorite, The Truth About Forever. This one also deals with difficulty communicating with parents, but it also explores grief, loss, and heartbreak. Macy’s mother expects perfection from her, but nothing in Macy’s life feels perfect after the death of her dad, the loss of her boyfriend, and the realization that her mother doesn’t seem to have time for her. This one involves a catering company and thus contains just as much food as Saint Anything, plus I thought many of the characters–especially the love interest–were stronger in this one.
- Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell is another great contemporary YA choice, especially if the romances are your favorite parts of Sarah Dessen’s books. This one’s not quite as slow and deals with more difficult and timely topics, like diversity, poverty, and abuse, but it still has all the cuteness of a Sarah Dessen book.
What’s next: I’ve just finished reading April Genevieve Tcholke’s Wink Poppy Midnight, a YA book about three characters who live in a mountain town and find all sorts of odd trouble. One is a hero, one is a villain, and one is a liar–but none of them are exactly who you think. One thing is clear though–these three will leave destruction in their wake as they try to figure out their identities.
The Literary Elephant