Reading a new Sarah Dessen book is like meeting up with my best friend after a long while. It always makes me feel so much better.
Saint Anything is about a girl called Sydney, who always wanted to be noticed until she was. Her whole life she’s felt like she’s living in her older brother Peyton’s shadow. He is the charismatic star of the family. Until he winds up in prison, that is, and everything around Sydney starts to go to hell. Suddenly people are paying attention to her, but not in a way that she would have ever wanted.
Sydney decides to move schools to get away from it all. She soon meets the Chatham family. They notice her in a way Sydney has never felt before – the noticing is an offer of friendship rather than a judgement. It’s an offer that changes her whole life.
Disappearing into Sarah Dessen’s writing is one of my greatest pleasures. Every time she brings out a new book, when I hold it in my hands for the first time, I take a moment to worry that my experience this time will be different, that the complete immersion I experience when reading these books will somehow be gone. I worry that getting older means that I might lose it.
It never does. From the moment I started reading this book, I completely lost my desire to do anything else.
Being noticed and the act of noticing are central to Saint Anything. Sydney’s parents fail to notice the affects her brother’s incarceration have on her. They fail to notice that she is being harassed by her brother’s creepy friend. They fail to notice that she’s a good kid. Sydney lives under the weight of her brother’s actions. Her parents are so preoccupied with his behaviour that Sydney finds herself being punished for actions she hasn’t even taken. Owing to Peyton’s lifestyle and its consequences, Sydney’s own freedom is limited.
Then there is her friendship with the Chathams. The whole family seem to notice that Sydney is in pain. They draw her in to them and out of herself. Sydney’s family are a great deal richer than the Chathams, and the way that Sarah Dessen shows this, by Sydney noting small things about their home – she’s a total master of show don’t tell – was wonderful. The Chatham’s financial existence was simply different, rather than problematic.
Another thing I love so much about Sarah Dessen’s books is how well rounded all of the characters are. Layla Chatham doesn’t come into Sydney’s life as just a solver of problems, a spirit guide or romantic comedy best friend with no personal life of her own. This girl is difficult. She’s welcoming, funny and confident – the kind of best friend that we all want. But she’s also liable to disappear into relationships and hold her friends to high standards that are hard to reach. I think that the key to Dessen’s writing and what makes the reading of it such an immersive experience is this character depth. By the end of each novel, I could easily care enough to read a spin off about each separate character. Sarah herself nods to this by the referencing to her previous work in all of her novels. When Sydney first meets Mac Chatham he is wearing an Anger Management radio show shirt.
This depth of character leads to constant surprises – for us and Sydney. In all her writing and in this book particularly, Dessen shows relationships as constantly evolving, the process of getting to know someone never truly complete.
Her books are a study on imagining people complexly.