The holy grail of ado­les­cence

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - By Alice Short

Saint Any­thing

A Novel

Sarah Dessen

Vik­ing: 418 pp., $19.99

It’s hard to imag­ine that any­one who reads fic­tion has not at some point en­coun­tered a ro­mance that draws its pro­tag­o­nists from op­po­site ends of the eco­nomic spec­trum. The rich-poor clash is one of the great themes of literature, pop­ping up in al­most ev­ery genre.

In re­cent years, YA au­thors — Sarah Dessen among them — have found great trac­tion in such en­tan­gle­ments. Dessen’s latest novel, “Saint Any­thing,” fol­lows a rich girl and a poor boy as they cir­cle each other with in­ter­est, and a cer­tain de­gree of wari­ness. But Dessen, whose pre­vi­ous books in­clude “The Truth About For­ever” and “Some­one Like You,” has more on her mind than cross­cul­tural ro­mance. She’s in pur­suit of the holy grail of ado­les­cence: emo­tional hon­esty.

Her pro­tag­o­nist, 16-year-old Syd­ney Stan­ford, be­lieves she has been oblit­er­ated by the light of her “shiny and charm­ing” older brother, Pey­ton. Even her brother’s fall from grace — at the start of the novel, Syd­ney is wait­ing for Pey­ton to be sen­tenced to prison for hav- ing crip­pled a 15-year-old boy in a drunken driv­ing ac­ci­dent — brings no re­lief from feel­ing like the sec­ond-tier child. Af­ter the trial, her lawyer fa­ther dis­ap­pears in a haze of work; her mother con­tin­ues to ob­sess over the son who sits in a cell.

Syd­ney or­ches­trates a switch from pri­vate to public school, but she is adrift with no emo­tional moor­ing — un­til the af­ter­noon she stops at a pizza place for a slice and soli­tude. She meets a brother and sis­ter, Mac and Layla Chatham, mem­bers of the work­ing-class fam­ily that owns the place. The re­la­tion­ships that en­sue trig­ger the start of her slow meta­mor­pho­sis.

Layla be­comes a best friend, Mac a po­ten­tial ro­man­tic in­ter­est. They take note of Syd­ney’s rel­a­tive af­flu­ence — that’s her BMW in the park­ing lot — but they’re too busy work­ing at the shop or do­ing house­hold chores to be en­vi­ous. Their par­ents pos­sess a warmth miss­ing in the Stan­ford house­hold, lov­ing their chil­dren while read­ily ac­knowl­edg­ing their short­com­ings. This is a fam­ily with shel­ter­ing arms.

But Syd­ney does not step into those arms right away. She starts and stops, stressed by dis­com­fort over her fam­ily’s money, by her strug­gle to deal with a mother who can’t see her son for what he is — as well as guilt over the crip­pled boy that some­times threat­ens to sub- sume her. “I was the sis­ter of the neigh­bor­hood delin­quent, drug ad­dict, and now drunk driver,” she ref lects. “It didn’t mat­ter that I’d done none of these things. With shame, like horse­shoes, prox­im­ity counts.”

Syd­ney’s in­ter­est in Mac evolves at a steady pace, en­counter by en­counter. There are no moviewor­thy mo­ments; when they fi­nally act on their at­trac­tion, the mo­ment is quiet — and pri­vate. “For a mo­ment,” she tells us, “we just looked at each other. … I was in a new place, with some­one I didn’t know that well, and yet it felt like the most nat­u­ral thing in the world, another groove al­ready worn, to lean for­ward as he did un­til we were face to face, his fin­gers still grip­ping my arm.”

Dessen sur­rounds Syd­ney with friends and ac­quain­tances who are for the most part de­cent — even good. But they are also fal­li­ble. Layla has ter­ri­ble taste in boyfriends; Mac has food is­sues; oth­ers start to drift into other or­bits. Their ex­pe­ri­ences and con­cerns will seem fa­mil­iar, com­fort­able and per­haps re­solv­able. “Saint Any­thing” doesn’t have much in com­mon with many re­cent YA best­sellers; there are no para­nor­mal oc­cur­rences, for one thing. But keep read­ing. Syd­ney’s re­ver­sal of for­tune is a quiet marvel.

Peng uin Au­dio

has writ­ten a work of emo­tional hon­esty.

KPO / Vik­ing

SARAH DESSEN

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