In which I compare a lovely YA writer to the master of horror. CBR7 review 35.

Unknown-1A few Cannonballs ago (CBR 4?), I went (OK, I tore) through a massive Sarah Dessen phase. I read every single one of her books and pretty much loved them all. And I wondered to myself, hey, where are all of the other Sarah Dessen lovers? Why aren’t my Cannonball protégés reading these books? They would love these books! They are smart and funny and real (sometimes, to a fault), and filled with tough heroines who figure out how to improve their lives. What’s not to love here?

And then, I’ll be honest, I kind of forgot about Dessen. I had raced through her entire catalog so quickly, I had nothing more to read until she published something new. And thankfully, she recently published Saint Anything, bringing me back to worship her and the world she has created.

Thankfully, Saint Anything was worth the long wait. Sydney has lived in the shadow of her prefect older brother, Peyton, her whole life. And when Peyton gets into some serious trouble with the law, and finds himself in jail, nothing changes. Sydney is still the one that her parents don’t notice or look out for. They are so busy worrying about and trying to help Peyton, that Sydney just sails quietly through life, unnoticed and never rocking the boat.

When Sydney meets some new friends, everything changes for her. For the first time in her life, she realizes that she is special, she is important, and that she isn’t as invisible as she thought she was. She becomes wrapped up with the enigmatic Chatham family — exuberant Layla, handsome Mac, troubled Rosie — and finds that she has just as much to offer them as they give to her.

What I like about Dessen’s heroines is that they are extremely human. They make mistakes and learn from them. While trying to repair her relationships with her parents and brother, Sydney makes lots of mistakes. But they help her to grow and to become a better version of herself. No longer will Syndey sit quietly on the sidelines, and she shows her family — and the reader — how much she has to offer. When Sydney and her friends spend a quiet night out in the woods near an abandoned carousel, you want Sydney to try and reach for the brass ring — both literally and figuratively.

And yes, as I mentioned earlier, sometimes Dessen’s writing is a little too real. She writes about drug and alcohol abuse, infidelity, unrequited love, depression, sexual assault, and lots and lots of disappointment in your parents and the adults around you. But these heavy issues don’t ever feel like a “very special episode” of Sarah Dessen. They are real — albeit unpleasant — things that happen to real teens every day.

In a previous review, I went out on a limb and compared Sarah Dessen to Stephen King, and I’m going to double down with that comparison here. Like King, Dessen has successfully created her own fictional universe where all of her books take place and interact with each other. However, unlike the horrible Maine towns of Derry and Castle Rock, life in North Carolina’s Colby and Lakeview is much more ordinary. Everyone lives near “the U”, the rich kids go to Perkins, the poor kids go to Jackson. They all summer at the same beach, they all go to see the same bands at the same clubs. When you read a Sarah Dessen book, you’re constantly on the lookout for any “Easter eggs”, or any ways that characters and places might be referencing something that we’ve read before. It’s the ultimate inside joke, a reward for being the “constant reader”.

I love being invited back to Dessen’s world every once in a while, and I fervently hope that she will continue to extend those invitations for a long time to come.

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