In Sarah Dessen’s latest novel, Saint Anything, we meet main character Sydney at a turning point in her life. Her brother Peyton, in and out of trouble since middle school, has just been sentenced to time in prison for a drunk driving accident that severely injured another teen boy. Sydney’s parents, especially her mother, are devastated that their son will have to spend time in prison. Sydney is devastated that because of her brother, a young man her age will never walk again. Unable to face returning to her private day school where everyone knows both her brother and his fate, Sydney has decided to enroll in the local public school for her junior year. Adrift in a sea of new faces and reluctant to head home to an empty house after school, she chooses to go for a slice of pizza at a local restaurant, where she meets and is quickly befriended by the Chatham family, who own the pizza parlor. Two of the Chathams, Mac and Layla, are fellow students at Sydney’s new school, and she is quickly enfolded into their circle of friends, which includes an entitled, self-styled musical genius, and a giant young black man who plays football. The Chathams know nothing about Sydney’s life or family and she initially prefers it that way. Gradually, she reveals more about herself and is relieved to find that the Chathams still warmly accept her, having family issues of their own.
Honestly, this novel seemed much longer than it was, in the best of possible ways. Dessen is a gifted author with the ability to speak volumes through her characters’ brief observations and opinions. She brilliantly to shows us how intensely creepy the ‘bad guy’ (Ames) of the story is, not through describing him but through other characters’ reactions to him. Much of the undercurrent of Sydney’s story – one of a girl who has lived in the shadow of her older brother’s magnetic personality her whole life finally realizing herself as a person – revolves around the complex Ames. A former addict himself, Ames became friends with Peyton during one of his stays in a rehabilitation facility. He worms his way into every aspect of Sydney’s family’s life through manipulation that her parents seem not to see until it is almost too late.
Like all of Dessen’s novels, there is so much to this story – and so much of it happens so subtly as to almost go unnoticed. This work, in particular, is very quiet. Characters are so well developed that they are as familiar as one’s own family and friends. Most readers will easily see themselves in Sydney, a girl who feels invisible and is brought into her own by the love and acceptance of her flawed but wonderful new friends. It has been quite some time since I’ve read a novel where I was so easily absorbed into the story and felt so much as if I were there, one of Sydney’s new crowd, along for the ride. It is the work of a gifted story teller.
It is also a novel I am eager to put into the hands of my students. My hope is that many of them will be able to relate to one or more of the main characters and see the others for the well drawn portraits of familiar people in their lives. As well, I hope that the realistic but nonjudgemental portrayal of the issues that teens must deal with will help them to both navigate their own lives successfully and have empathy for others who are navigating their own issues. I highly recommend this book to any collection serving teen readers. Dessen has earned her star reputation for good reason.
Full disclosure, Sarah Dessen is local to me and I had the opportunity to see her at my local book store for this book tour. She is just as lovely and real in person as her books suggest. If you haven’t had a chance to read her recent essay in Seventeen Magazine, please go do so now. Also, we have an extra copy to give away! Enter our drawing for your own copy of Saint Anything!