Whenever I finish reading a new Sarah Dessen book, I want to reread some of her earlier work. Usually I resist because I want to keep up with my reading goals. Not to mention, with thirteen books published, there are almost too many choices. However, this summer saw me with more free time than usual, which meant more reading. In a time of transition I once again turned to a favorite book. And then another. And another. It was all Sarah Dessen, all the time.
I reread The Truth About Forever, Just Listen, and Saint Anything. The Truth about Forever is a fan favorite, one that I loved at the age of 15 and had certainly read more than once in the past. Just Listen is one of the few Dessen novels that I had mediocre feelings about, only to hear multiple coworkers and friends list it among their favorites. Saint Anything is her second-to-last book, released in 2015. I really liked it at the time but had only read it once. It was an interesting cross-section of her work, which I’ve been wanting to revisit for years.
Back in 2004, I remember being nervous about The Truth about Forever. I had loved This Lullaby with such a passion, and I didn’t want my favorite author to disappoint me. Then she published a novel that was equal to, if not better than the previous book. As an adult reader, the premise is still appealing. The crew at Wish Catering is one of Sarah’s best supporting casts, and who wouldn’t want to be whisked away into a quirky new social group. Wes is also one of her most swoon-worthy love interests: the thoughtful, artistic boy with a checkered past. It’s still a humorous and touching book with amazing character details.
Just Listen was her very next novel, and in my mind the stakes finally got too high. It may have been the similarities of Annabel’s problems to those of the previous narrator, or I may have been bothered by the made-up musicians and band names. Quite possibly I was just a jaded seventeen-year-old who was a bit of a music snob and transitioning to adult fiction. For whatever reason, Just Listen flopped for me in 2006, and I hadn’t read it since. In 2017 I’m still a music lover but significantly less snobby about it. I also have an easier time accepting a fictional reality in a realistic fiction book. More than ten years later, I could finally see why so many other readers connected with this story.
I wasn’t planning to move on to Saint Anything, especially since I noticed during my first two rereads that all three of these books cover themes of holding in emotions and feeling unheard. I also remembered drawing comparisons between Mac and Wes when I first read Saint Anything, along with some of the other supporting characters. Of course, there’s a limit to the varieties of floppy-haired teenage dreamboats, and authors tend to touch on similar themes throughout their work. Despite having just read the other two books, the similarities in Saint Anything didn’t really bother me. And not just because I’m completely biased! Isn’t the struggle to feel understood and to be seen the way we want to be seen a central part of the adolescent experience? Nobody ever got mad at Hemingway for writing about the psychological aftermath of the First World War.
I was curious, and admittedly somewhat afraid, to see how my tastes had changed over the years. And while there were moments that affected me differently, I found myself more open to enjoy plotlines and characters that had once disinterested me. As a teenager, I also considered The Truth about Forever to be quite profound. The philosophizing didn’t seem as mind-blowing now, but it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the story. Finally rereading Just Listen reminded me that I probably wasn’t very attracted to Owen as Annabel’s love interest. But tastes change—thank God—and it’s easier to see the appeal of a boy with a penchant for honesty and a beyond-obscure public radio show.
Rereading these books was a way to get back in touch with myself, to see how I’ve changed and how I’ve stayed the same. It always helps to feel grounded in yourself when your life is going through changes. I’m so glad that sixth-grade Courtney picked up her first Sarah Dessen book and found an author whose work would be with her sixteen years later.