I recently celebrated my 25th birthday by floating on a lake with Sarah Dessen’s newest novel “Saint Anything” in hand. I’ve always believed in spending your birthday doing something you love in a place you love (and if possible, with people you love). This year was no exception. Twenty-five is a big number. It’s scary. I’m not ready to be in my mid-twenties! When did this happen? When did I sign up for this? Aside from the fear of paying off more bills, affording rent, and the impending doom of being a grown up, part of me worries that the older I get, the less socially acceptable it will be for me to read YA literature. Then again, I’m realizing that what I like to read shouldn’t matter, so long as I’m still reading and enjoying it. I’ve grown up reading Sarah Dessen’s stories and I know there are many young women out there that can say the same thing about themselves.
Sarah Dessen gets it. She gets teenage girls and young women. She knows the way we think, the way we fall in love, the way we struggle within our personal lives. That being said, I think Sarah Dessen is an important piece of today’s YA literature puzzle; she’s an important piece of my own story. She reaches an audience that is seeking acceptance, love, and wonder. Even at 25, I’m seeking those things. I have moments of self-doubt and I often struggle with my decision to be a writer. It’s in those moments that I love to escape into a literary world that is both realistic and relatable. After 12 books, Sarah still creates those worlds perfectly.
“Saint Anything” fits in right among the best of Sarah’s novels. But what stood out and impressed me the most about the story is that it focused more on everyday relationships, especially familial ones, rather than her usual focus on romantic relationships. Sydney Stanford is struggling to live in the shadows of the mistakes made by her older brother, someone she initially doesn’t have much of a relationship with. At the same time, she can’t seem to find her voice to stand up for herself, let alone build a relationship with her distant brother. She becomes all of her brother’s mistakes, and in turn, becomes invisible to her own family. “Saint Anything” is a story about learning to accept what your reality is and in the process, find the emotional strength to fix it however you can.
It’s a lesson that we can all take something from. We get to see Sydney building up her inner strength to demand attention from her parents, from her old friends, and from the new relationships she’s forming. She is not looking for a summer romance or a boy to give her attention. She is looking for her world. She is actively trying to create something for herself outside of the heavy atmosphere that is her family/home life.
What I have loved and will always love about Sarah Dessen are the relationships she creates on the page. She writes in a way that allows the reader to feel a connection to the lives and worlds of her characters. Her books and characters are delicately intertwined, but not so much that the universe they’re in feels forced or convenient. They each have a place, a purpose, and a story. Whether on the beach, in the suburbs, or bordering the forest, Sarah’s characters are multi-dimensional and have a way of coming off the page as living, breathing people. Possibly even reflecting people we know in our own lives.
Take Sydney’s new best friend, Layla for example. She is bubbly, warm, and welcoming. She’s known for falling for the wrong guys (we all have a friend like that or maybe you are that friend) and her fierce loyalty to her family. Without hesitation, she welcomes Sydney into not only her friend circle, but also her family circle. Then there’s Mac, Layla’s brother. His reality is that taking over the family business is his only option after high school. Despite his inquisitive, everything-can-be-fixed way of thinking, he too is loyal to his family. If that loyalty means setting aside his desire to go to college, then so be it. Like a slow burn, Sydney and Mac connect quietly, yet intimately. Despite their different realities, their relationship explores the confusion, frustration, and elaborate webs created by family life and the way these webs can interfere with relationships outside of someone’s home life.
Even though “Saint Anything” is not my favorite Sarah Dessen novel (I’m not even sure if I could pick my favorite if I had to), I admire this story and the attention Sarah gives to a character who is used to feeling invisible. In the process of writing “Saint Anything,” Sarah has acknowledged the personal struggles she faced. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Sarah explained, “This book initially came out of a failed book… I had a lot of very long afternoons where I was just looking out the window and feeling incredibly depressed because I didn’t know if I was ever going to have another idea.” I got the chance to meet Sarah at her book tour stop in Naperville, IL, where she continued to openly discuss the ups and downs she experienced through the process of writing “Saint Anything.” Her reality was the loss of ideas. The inability to write anything that fueled her fire. It was as if she became invisible to her writing.
“Saint Anything”’s book dedication reads: “For all the invisible girls and for my readers, for seeing me.” As one of Sarah Dessen’s invisible girls/readers, I wholeheartedly agree that it feels good to be noticed by someone who gets it. And it gives me a little hope that someday, that I too can reach the invisible girls who deserve to be seen. As a writer myself, I think it was important for her to explain the vulnerability she felt. It’s a big deal to put so much energy into writing something, only to have it not satisfy you and ultimately fall apart. I might be in my mid-twenties and completely in love with Sarah Dessen’s writing, but it’s with good reason. Even when she felt invisible, she didn’t abandon herself or her writing. She stood up, took a different approach, and created a beautiful twelfth novel that explores the struggles she felt through the eyes and the heart of a teenager. So here’s to all the invisible girls. You’re not alone.