My first Sarah Dessen book was Dreamland, upmteen years ago and I was hooked. It was about an abusive relationship, as was Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn, which I read shortly after. Both authors have since moved on from topical issues, Flinn to retelling fairy tales and Dessen to summer romance. So I was happy to see that in Saint Anything, Dessen has inched back towards a topical issue.
Sixteen year old Sydney Stanford’s older brother Peyton had it all-charm, athleticism, smarts-but for some reason he threw it all away, drinking, breaking and entering, etc. Having served several short stints in jail, he’s now locked away for a longer time for something more serious, drunk driving and hitting a pedestrian.
Sydney, in order to avoid knowing eyes and whispers, decides to leave her prestigious private school for the local public school, Jackson High, where nobody knows her. This also meant leaving behind her best friends Jenn and Meredith and their after school coffees, etc. After her first day of school, not wanting to go home to a mother so focused on Peyton, she wanders into a local pizza place. As she opens the door, a good looking guy, Mac, comes in behind her and goes behind the counter. Sitting and eating her pizza, a young blond girl, Layla, rushes in and disappears behind the door marking Private. Little does Sydney know how important these two people will become in her life.
This is the second book in a row I’ve read where mothers become overbearing, for one reason or another, and children suffer. Sydney’s mother, Julie, is so focused on making Peyton’s jail time as comfortable and enjoyable as possible (yes, it is jail, not play school) and in making sure that Sydney doesn’t make the same mistakes, that the once lively Julie has become a machine. She’s talking with prisoner advocates, monitoring Sydney’s activities and organizing parents of other inmates, so that Sydney’s once idyllic home life has been obliterated.
In addition, Sydney also has to deal with the creepy Ames, a friend of Peyton’s who has wormed his way into the Stanford household as her mother’s friend. His mere presence makes her uncomfortable, but of course, no one notices.
As I said, Saint Anything is a step towards realistic fiction while not losing the summer romance angle that has made Sarah Dessen as popular as she is. Dessen explores Peyton’s feelings towards his family, the society imposed and self imposed isolation that comes from being in jail. Julie’s transformation from lively, energetic mother to overbearing, focused, disciplinarian, which in part causes Sydney’s feeling of isolation from family and friends, is palpable.
In typical Dessen fashion, music plays a major role in Saint Anything. She has created a cast of characters that you’ll love from page one. Saint Anything is another winning Sarah Dessen book which fans will devour…if they haven’t already. (P.S. Other than mentioning the fictional town of Colby, I didn’t recognize anything from any of her other books. She usually does have oblique references to prior books. So, if you find one, let me know.)