Between The Moon and More and Saint Anything, Sarah Dessen was very open about the fact that she had to set aside a novel that just wasn’t working. She seemingly shared this to warn her fans that, in contrast to her typical two-year spacing between publications, there might not be a new novel in 2015. Instead, she channeled her feelings of helplessness into the story of Sydney, a girl whose charismatic older brother is sent to prison after a drunk driving accident.
Saint Anything is Sarah Dessen’s twelfth young adult novel. She’s a key role model for me, so I tend to pay as much attention to her career choices as the books themselves. The press for this book hinted that it was darker than her previous work. As something of a Sarah Dessen connoisseur, I found this claim irritating due to its improbability. As if she never wrote a novel about an abusive relationship. Or teen pregnancy. Or parental abandonment. However, her book covers and marketing in recent years have been fairly bright and cheery, focusing on the romantic aspects despite other storylines that are also present. Barnes & Noble also started shelving her books in Teen Romance, which I found reductive and possibly sexist. Her books always always have more going on than just the romantic relationship.
Of course, I had no way of knowing if Saint Anything takes a darker turn until I read it. Now that I have, I can confidently say that it does not. Sarah was in a more vulnerable place while writing it, which perhaps colored her perception of the book itself. All marketing schemes aside, I would deem this novel a success. She deals with themes that I’ve tried to explore in my own writing, particularly as Sydney struggles to become her own person in relation to her brother. There’s a South Park episode that’s primary joke is “The Simpsons already did it!” My personal equivalent is “Sarah Dessen already did it!” After twelve young adult novels, you can cover a lot of contemporary teenager topics. Sarah has said that she doesn’t know how many more high school stories she will write. I admire her for being brave enough to consider a new career direction.
The make-or-break moment for me with any Sarah Dessen novel is whether the characters gel. There have only been a few times where the world didn’t feel real, like I could see the mechanisms at work instead of getting lost in the final product. To be fair, I probably pay more attention to the mechanisms than the average reader. In the case of Saint Anything, the characters clicked within the first few chapters. Focusing on a character who’s struggling to be heard within her own family could have been a massive flop, as passive narrators can be risky, but Sarah pulls it off by raising the stakes and surrounding Sydney with a dynamic supporting cast. If anyone can pull that off, it would be her.
I was sad to reach the end, which makes me want to reread some of her others. What I would really like to do is reread all her books and do a personal ranking, but that’s too big of a time commitment. I may indulge the whim to reread one or two. I think I hear The Truth About Forever calling my name…