Sarah Dessen is undeniably one of the most notable authors in the young adult genre of fiction, today. I’ve read Dessen’s heartfelt novels since I was in the seventh grade and almost ten years later, I still look forward to the release of her new reads. In her most recent book, Saint Anything, Dessen tells the story of a girl named Sydney whose family dynamic is thrown for a loop after her older brother is incarcerated.
Like many of her other novels, Saint Anything is set in the fictional town of Lakeview, which Dessen has confirmed is based on her North Carolina hometown, Chapel Hill. As a loyal reader of Dessen’s older novels, I was already familiar with the U, along with other Lakeview landmarks, but I thought it was interesting how Dessen dove further into examining the different neighborhoods of the town, specifically the socioeconomic differences between each character’s residence. The protagonist of Saint Anything, Sydney, lives in an affluent neighborhood called Arbors and prior to transferring to the local public high school, she attended a private day school.
At the local pizza shop near her new school, Sydney meets Mac and Layla Chatham, a brother and sister who befriend her from the get-go. While Mac and Layla are both likable, quirky characters and have an interesting family dynamic (their mother has multiple sclerosis and their father owns the local pizza shop), I found their personas to be somewhat flat. Mac is the perfect brother to Layla, student, and love interest to Sydney. On the other hand, Layla is an outspoken, candy eater who is Sydney’s loyal confidant throughout the book. I couldn’t help but think that they were stock characters you would see in some corny teen rom-com—Mac is the nice guy who becomes the perfect boyfriend, while Layla is the sassy best friend. Mac and Layla had the potential to develop more throughout the story, especially when they had to deal with their mother’s battle with multiple sclerosis, but instead, they merely serve as supporting characters to drive the plot.
The real conflict found in the story is between Sydney’s immediate family and her brother’s best friend, Ames. As the reader learns in the beginning of the novel, Sydney’s older brother Peyton is incarcerated after he hit a boy, David Ibarra, while driving drunk. As a result of the crash, David is paralyzed. Sydney and her parents deal with stages of grief throughout the novel, but in different ways. It is made apparent that Sydney has an exceptional amount of remorse because David is now paralyzed; however, she struggles with the idea of approaching David and making her presence (and connection to the situation) to him known. On the other hand, her parents mask their grief of raising a troubled son by attempting to strengthen their relationship with Peyton while he is imprisoned. This results in Sydney’s parents being extremely absent-minded and aloof when it comes to dealing with their daughter.
While the interactions between Sydney and her parents are believable, Sydney is so passive in the presence of her parents, despite the fact that she voices her hurt feelings to everyone but them. Even when Sydney tries to explain to her parents that Ames, Peyton’s best friend and her designated house-sitter, makes her feel uncomfortable, she is incapable of explaining to her parents why she doesn’t want him to watch her when her parents are visiting Peyton in prison. It isn’t until a dramatic scene toward the end of the novel, that her parents have an ‘a-ha’ moment and Sydney’s distaste for him suddenly makes sense. Yes, not every sixteen-year-old girl can articulately voice an intuition she has about a person, but the nearly violent encounter Sydney has with Ames is so hustled, I question whether or not Ames needed to have a presence in the story.
Saint Anything ends with Sydney coming to terms with her fear of speaking to David. However, I was frustrated that their interaction wasn’t turned into a scene. Debatably, David Ibarra is one of the most compelling characters in the book, yet the reader barely knows him. I so wanted to read their conversation, instead of it being left as an unnecessary cliff-hanger.
Overall, I enjoyed reading Saint Anything. It’s a quick read and has an interesting plot line. In my opinion, it’s not Dessen’s best novel; however, it’s a pleasant story with a decent amount of under the surface tension.