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.
Tell Me More: At the core of every Sarah Dessen story is a girl standing at a crossroads. Sometimes she knows she’s there, and she’s running from the choice. Sometimes she doesn’t see it past the fog of everything else that’s going on in her life. It’s easy to find yourself in her stories, and it’s why her books have become a cornerstone of YA literature. Saint Anything is Dessen’s newest offering to her readers, and while it is a strong, technically beautiful story, it never really captivated me or convinced me to invest in its characters’ crossroads.
Sydney is reminiscent of Colie from Keeping the Moon: constantly on guard, frustrated, and almost unbearably lonely. She also reminded me a lot of Natalie Goodman from the musical Next to Normal, a daughter left to piece herself together after her brother bulldozes through the family’s peaceful life. It was hard to see Sydney for who she was beyond these comparisons. Dessen does lay some of the foundation for her character in Sydney’s interactions with her old friends, but there were moments in which it was just as hard to see how they ever became friends. You get the sense that Sydney doesn’t actually know who she is yet, and I spent a lot of the book worrying that she might continue to let other people and their actions define her.
It’s when Sydney meets Layla Chatham and Mac at her new school that the story begins to pick up. Layla was charming, to be sure, but even after I finished reading, I was never completely sold on Mac. My familiarity and love for Dessen’s books might have worked against me here, as Wes (The Truth About Forever) and Dexter (This Lullaby) will forever be the standard against which I measure YA love interests. Mac just doesn’t hit the sa-woon meter for me, and I didn’t feel that Sydney really needed him in the end.
The Chathams were an interesting family, as most of these supporting characters tend to be, and I appreciated their candor with Sydney. There just wasn’t enough to pull me into their world. Part of that might be from Sydney’s own reticence, but it’s also partly because I felt like I had read this story before, and I did. For the first time in my Dessen reading history, these characters felt more like slotted-in tropes than real people.
Dessen also takes on a darker subplot with her brother’s friend Ames’ uncomfortable interest in Sydney, which I still have mixed feelings about. I’m very glad that there was no sexual violence, implied or otherwise—I wouldn’t have wanted it in any fashion. I would have just appreciated a bit of clearer writing because there were scenes in which I wasn’t sure what Ames really wanted, and his character flip-flopped so often that I could never put my finger on his motivations.
Over the last decade, Dessen’s novels have been some of the strongest contemporary novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading. They’ve been comforting, familiar stories, and The Truth About Forever absolutely ruined me for contemporary YA love interests. That positive history with Dessen’s work is what made my Saint Anything reading experience such a strange one.
I could recognize the formula for what it was, and still want to walk that path with Sydney, but I also found myself looking for something more. The formula drew me into comparing this book with her previous work, and while I wasn’t left wanting, it did leave me with the undeniable sense of having moved past needing these particular stories.
I don’t believe that Saint Anything is juvenile in any sense of the word, but it’s not the kind of story I’m looking for anymore. That’s okay. This is my own crossroads, and neither side is good or bad. They’re just different. And if there’s one thing that Dessen has taught me in the last ten years, “different” is sometimes exactly what you need.
Sarah Dessen is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of many novels, which have received numerous awards and rave reviews, and have sold more than seven million copies. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with her husband, Jay, and their daughter, Sasha Clementine.