{Review} SAINT ANYTHING by Sarah Dessen

O P E N I N G   H O O K:

   "WOULD THE DEFENDANT please rise."
   This wasn't an actual question, even though it sounded like one. I'd noticed that the first time we'd all been assembled here, in this way. Instead, it was a command, an order. The "please" was for show.
   My brother stood up. Beside me, my mom tensed, sucking in a breath. Like the way they tell you to inhale before an X-ray so they can see more, get it all. My father stared straight forward, as always, his face impossible to read.
   The judge was talking again, but I couldn't seem to listen. Instead, I looked over to the tall windows, the trees blowing back and forth outside. It was early August; school started in three weeks. It felt like I had spent the entire summer in this very room, maybe in this same seat, but I knew that wasn't the case. Time just seemed to stop here. But maybe, for people like Peyton, that was exactly the point.
   It was only when my mother gasped, bending forward to grab the bench in front of us, that I realized the sentence had been announced. I looked up at my brother. He'd been known for his fearlessness all the way back to when we were kids playing in the woods behind our house. But the day those older boys had challenged him to walk across that wide, gaping sinkhole on a skinny branch and he did it, his ears had been bright red. He was scared. Then and now.
(Pages 1-2, US hardcover edition)

I was really looking forward to reading my first book by Sarah Dessen! Well, technically, I own two of her books, but I'm pretty sure I never read either of them. At least, the summaries don't look familiar... In my defense, the vast majority of the books I bought in the spring/summer of my senior year of high school went unread because they got boxed up and forgotten when I went away to college. So TECHNICALLY I can say that SAINT ANYTHING is my first, right!? Plus, I really like how the book unfurls and gives you little treats like the scene that inspired the carousel on the cover or the one that gives the novel its name. I love when books add these sweet secrets, and now wonder if other Dessen books have similar hidden moments for readers to unearth!

SAINT ANYTHING has been THE It Book everyone has been buzzing about this summer. Granted, everyone always buzzes about Dessen, the Queen of YA Contemporary Novels. But the buzz has been EXTRA buzzy around SAINT ANYTHING. It reminds me of this past spring, when everyone went wild for I'LL MEET YOU THERE by Heather Demetrios. Both times, I gave into the hype and picked up the books with wild expectations, even though I'm not a big contemporary reader. Both times, I've been underwhelmed because the books didn't worm their way into my hearts the way they did for everyone else. BUT I am the exception, not the rule. I still enjoyed the books. But I didn't flat out fall in love, and perhaps that's just because of super high expectations (and, you know, the whole contemporary thing). These books are still worth talking about, especially when you consider the fact that SAINT ANYTHING tackles so many important issues that aren't seen frequently in YA.

The novel centers around a girl named Sydney, whose entire life is turned upside down when her older brother Peyton is incarcerated after causing a serious accident while driving drunk. Peyton was always the perfect child and the center of attention, even when his life began spinning out of control for smaller infractions. Sydney is all but invisible to her family, hidden in Peyton's shadow. Her parents are so focused on where they went wrong and preventing it from happening again that it's hard for her to live her own life. When Sydney transfers from her fancy private school to the local public one her junior year, she finally starts living even though no one is paying attention. She finally has real friends and may even be falling for a guy for the first time, but her new life doesn't mesh well with her family's expectations. Can Sydney ever break free of the shadow Peyton has cast on her life?

There are so many tough topics worth talking about in SAINT ANYTHING. For one thing, the book's essence revolves around the fallout a family may experience after one of their own makes one bad decision too many. How does a prison sentence affect everyone else in the family? It doesn't just change you. It changes everyone. Sydney, for example, feels incredibly guilty and thinks about the harm Peyton did to David Ibarra almost every day. Her mother is checked out and pretends that Peyton being in jail is a lot like him being away at boarding school, and that accomplishments are worth celebrating. She thinks Peyton is the true victim in all of this. On top of that, Peyton's creepy friend Ames is peppering Sydney with unwanted attention. She hates that he is over so often and that her mother loves him so completely, because she hates the way he looks at her. Dessen has opened up online about a similar situation she experienced as a teenager when a 21-year-old who really should have known better had an unhealthy interest in her, and the inclusion of this aspect in SAINT ANYTHING will get readers talking. If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. Trust your instincts. It isn't always cool to be the focus of an older boy's interest. Sydney talked to her friends Layla and Mac about Ames and the way he made her feel, but she never felt comfortable bringing it up to her parents, and they were the ones in a position to make a true difference. I feel that message is powerful and definitely a conversation-starter.

I also liked the way Dessen portrayed families. Sydney's family is very Type A, and her parents have been affected by Peyton's actions in varying ways. In contrast, Layla and Mac have a warm, open family that's easy to fall in love with. Their mother is suffering from Multiple Sclerosis (MS), which adds another layer to the novel, but she's a fighter and has an amazing heart. Their father owns the pizzeria in which Sydney meets her future best friend and boyfriend for the first time, and the place feels like home by the end of the novel. WARNING: Reading SAINT ANYTHING will make you HUNGRY. It will ESPECIALLY make you want pizza and french fries! You might not want to read this one while you're hungry. Or even when you're not hungry. I'm not at all, but I could go for some pizza and fries right now. Mmmm....!

In the end, SAINT ANYTHING was mixed for me. There were elements I liked a lot and others that I was MEH over. There were a couple of aspects that I wish had been fleshed-out a little more because they're loose ends, but I was ultimately happy with the direction the novel went and how it ended. I also wasn't a huge fan of the way we'd be in a scene and then flashback to something that happened earlier in the day, then return to that scene, but it didn't happen often, so I could forgive that. Especially since there were also scenes that were charming and memorable, such as the Carousel scene or Layla's french fry quirks! I really liked the various issues that were raised in the novel and the way Sydney had to deal with them. We definitely need more books that explore the themes SAINT ANYTHING raises, and I think this book will get readers talking. In the end, that's what makes a book a true winner: If it can have a lasting impact and make you stop and think!


Content Ratings: highlight between ( ) for details

Romance: PG ( Kissing )
Language: -- 
Violence: PG13 ( There's a big confrontation toward the end that involves both potential sexual entrapment as well as the use of fists, etc. )
Other:  PG13 ( underage drinking and smoking; mention of characters who have been arrested for drug use; DUI/arrest for driving drunk and causing a serious accident; alluding that a character may or may not be a sexual predator )
C O V E R   D E S I G N:

This carousel isn't REALLY like anything in the book, but in a way, it also IS. It will remind readers of a fantastic scene in the novel, even though it's not the best portrayal of that scene!

The cover definitely caught my attention right away! 

I love the coloring, too, how it's a mix of dark and light!
O F F I C I A   I N F O:

Author: Sarah Dessen
Release Date: May 5, 2015
Publisher: Viking Juvenile  // Penguin
Received: Borrowed

Peyton, Sydney's charismatic older brother, has always been the star of the family, receiving the lion's share of their parents' attention and—lately—concern. When Peyton's increasingly reckless behavior culminates in an accident, a drunk driving conviction, and a jail sentence, Sydney is cast adrift, searching for her place in the family and the world. When everyone else is so worried about Peyton, is she the only one concerned about the victim of the accident?

Enter the Chathams, a warm, chaotic family who run a pizza parlor, play bluegrass on weekends, and pitch in to care for their mother, who has multiple sclerosis. Here Sydney experiences unquestioning acceptance. And here she meets Mac, gentle, watchful, and protective, who makes Sydney feel seen, really seen, for the first time.

The uber-popular Sarah Dessen explores her signature themes of family, self-discovery, and change in her twelfth novel, sure to delight her legions of fans.