By Rachel Wilmans
“…it’s not only important for us to be seen, but to have someone to look for us, as well.”
In most books, the reader’s focus centers on the character who experiences the novel’s tragedy, has the biggest personality, or gets caught up in the whirlwind of the action. But what happens to the people around that main character? How are they affected by what happens to the hero of the story? Sarah Dessen shows in her new book, Saint Anything, that the people outside the spotlight need to be seen just as much as those in the center.
Sydney Stanford has always felt like nothing more than a background character in her brother Peyton’s story. Peyton was the daredevil, the popular kid, the star who outshone Sydney in everyone’s eyes, including her parents. Then he starts slipping into a downward spiral and hits rock bottom when he goes to jail for drunk driving incident that results in a young boy getting paralyzed. As the Stanfords try to pick up the pieces, Sydney feels like she has disappeared into Peyton’s shadow completely. In an attempt to get away from the unpleasant mixture of scrutiny and sympathy from her classmates, Sydney transfers from her prep school to the local public high school. There she meets the Chathams, an eclectic family with baggage of their own. There’s Layla, an energetic french fry connoisseur who always gets her heart broken; Rosie, a former skating prodigy who has had her own brush with the law; Mr. Chatham, lover of bluegrass music and owner of the family pizza business; Mrs. Chatham, the kind-hearted matriarch in the family who doesn’t let her multiple sclerosis get her down; and last but not least Mac, the strong and silent protector who Sydney feels drawn to. It is with all of these vibrant personalities that Sydney finally feels like she has found people who not only notice her but see her for who she truly is. With the Chathams, Sydney finds the strength to break out from the pull of her family’s problems and be her own person.
Saint Anything’s greatest asset is that while romance is part of the book, it doesn’t overtake the plot completely, leaving room for a deeper storylines. The novel focuses on themes that today’s teenagers can relate to: acceptance, guilt, and what it means to really be seen by the people around you. The Chathams don’t judge Sydney about her past and give her the advice she craves, which provides Sydney solid ground to find her place in the world, a struggle that many teens face today. Another strong aspect of the novel is the intense internal conflict Sydney has about her brother. While her mother is pushing her to support Peyton, Sydney can’t help but vilify him and wonder about the boy he hurt. This realistic representation of guilt adds a layer of psychological conflict that few other young adult books have. Finally, Dessen’s novel brings forward the idea of being visible. Saint Anything isn’t a true coming-of-age novel in that Sydney already knows who she is; she just wants someone else to recognize her. Mac is more than a love interest, and his relationship with Sydney isn’t her defining feature. He is the one who brings Sydney the visibility she’s looking for (no pun intended), and that fact is more important in the novel than the actual relationship. These deeper themes shine brighter than the romance in the novel, which makes the story stand out among the other young adult books.
While Dessen’s plot shines because of its depth, the characters themselves fall a bit flat. Sydney and Mac especially don’t leap off of the page the way you want them to, and some of the characters, like Layla, are described in the same way over and over, which can become repetitive. Die-hard Dessen fans may have a sense of déjà vu when reading Saint Anything, as some have criticized the author for recycling some of her characters from her eleven previous novels. However, as someone new to this queen of young adult novels, I personally didn’t experience this.
Saint Anything is another solid showing from Sarah Dessen that is sure to please old fans and bring in new ones. I definitely recommend this book to any teen who wants more from the young adult genre. The complex plotline with its many layers makes it stand out among the rest, and it stays with you long after you read the final pages.
Final rating: 4/5 stars