Readers who have felt overshadowed by an older sibling or overlooked by their parents will relate easily to Sydney, the protagonist of Sarah Dessen's latest novel, Saint Anything. Sydney's charismatic older brother, Peyton, was the apple of their mother's eye - until he started acting out. Now he's in jail, sentenced to seventeen months for driving drunk and hitting and paralyzing a young boy.
Shortly after the sentencing, Sydney begins her junior year of high school. Legal fees have severely altered her family's budget, so she switches from private school to public. Ready to be anonymous, she welcomes the change. Instead of going the expected route of reinventing herself and/or lying to people about her brother or her family, she stays true to herself and keeps her head above water rather than wallowing or whining. Kudos to Dessen for letting her character remain authentic and genuine.
Because of that, Sydney finds people who accept her for who she is: specifically, Layla and Mac. Both are perceptive, Layla in a more direct way, while Mac stands quietly just one step away, ready to protect and help his loved ones whenever they need him. Layla, in the same grade as Sydney, is lively, lovely, and unlucky in love. Mac, Layla's brother, is one grade up. They understand family entanglements and obligations: their mother suffers from MS and is often resting at home; their father runs the family business, a pizza place called Seaside; and their older sister, Rosie, once a promising figure skater, recently had a brush with the law. The more time Sydney spends with Layla and Mac, the more comfortable she feels with them and in her own skin. She starts hanging out and helping out at Seaside whenever time allows.
Meanwhile, Sydney's mother Julie, always organized and ready to put a positive spin on things, tries to stay involved in her son's life - and you'd think by the way she was acting, he was away at school or on a long trip, rather than in prison - while she's still somewhat oblivious to her daughter. Julie can't wait to go to Family Visiting Day at the jail, Sydney doesn't know if she wants to. Julie trusts Peyton's friend Ames, who gives Sydney the creeps. Ames (supposedly) cleaned up his act and keeps in contact with Peyton, so Julie sees him as an extension of her son and uses him as a sounding board and messenger. Sydney doesn't like how Ames looks at her, how he stands a little too close; he makes her uncomfortable, especially when he jumps at the chance to be her chaperone when her parents are away. The attention she wants but doesn't get from her parents and the attention she gets but doesn't want from Ames becomes trapped in the same four walls.
Sarah Dessen always gives her characters dimensions and realistic attributes. Rather than simply being Sydney's support group, the supporting characters in Saint Anything have their own storylines and interests (ask Layla how she likes her french fries; consider Mac's hobbies, or those of Sydney's long-time friends Jenn and Meredith). Some orbits cross and interact while others are separate. There is also music, though not as prevalent as in some of Dessen's other works, more of a gentle underscore here and there, playing in the background at the pizza joint, then at in the Chatham home, then growing louder as Sydney gets to know a local band. Dessen's dedicated readers will notice subtle connections to characters and places from her previous novels, further enriching the world she's created.
The title comes from something Sydney is given, something that gives her hope. For anyone who is searching for that hope: may you find it, and share it, and never lose it.
My favorite quotes from this novel include:
"There's no shame in trying to make stuff work, if how I see it. It's better than just accepting the broken." - Mac to Sydney, page 244
I would have love to know how it felt, just once, to have something fall apart and see options instead of endings. - pages 244-245
You only really fall apart in front of the people you know can piece you back together. - Page 387
When faced with the scariest of things, all you want is to turn away, to 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 lookfor us, as well. - Page 401
"I can go with you," he said. "If it would make it easier."
"It would," I told him. "But I think I need it to be difficult." - Page 415
If you like Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen, you will also like The Opposite of Invisible by Liz Gallagher and The Queen of Everything by Deb Caletti. If this was your first foray into the world of Sarah Dessen, make sure to check out her backlist. Click here for my reviews of all of Sarah Dessen's novels.
Related posts at Bildungsroman:
Interview: Sarah Dessen
Booklist: Tough Issues for Teens
They Tried to Ban This Book Today, or, There's a Sticker on the Cover of This Book: Reacting to the Challenge of Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
Roundtable: Sarah Dessen Novels
Roundtable: Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
Playlist: This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen
Author Spotlight: Sarah Dessen