Book review: Saint Anything, by Sarah Dessen

Disclosure: This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered. 

Sarah Dessen’s Saint Anything is a fascinating contemporary YA novel with an interesting narrative structure. I found myself winding through the book with a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop, living in wound-up narrative tension, and while the book has a dramatic climax, Dessen avoided the melodrama that characterises many contemporaries these days. Saint Anything is about family lost and found, romance, and the complexities of teen life, and it’s told with a fresh, clear voice that makes it a really enjoyable read, especially on a lazy summer day.

As someone who grew up without siblings (my half-sisters are much older and we never lived together or had much contact), I don’t share the experiences of many people. Growing up alone versus growing up with siblings is markedly different, and it’s hard to articulate these two experiences, because they’re tough to understand when you’re on the other side of the fence. I see how siblings interact and I’ve read numerous texts about siblings, but these kinds of relationships are still slightly outside my ken. Conversely, people have very strange attitudes about only children and our relationship to our parents and culture.

In the case of Saint Anything, there are two really interesting sibling relationships that run in parallel. One involves Sydney, the star of the novel, and her older brother Peyton. Across culture, class, and social divides, she encounters Rosie, Layla, and Mac, three siblings in a chaotic, loving, complicated family dealing with its own issues. Watching how Sydney relates to her friends and her family over the course of the book is central to her character development and how she shifts as a person, learning to assert herself and grow into the young woman she’s supposed to be.

Sydney is trapped in layers of invisibility, with both of her parents heavily focused on her brother. Peyton began experiencing behavioural problems in high school, and ultimately landed himself in prison for a drunk driving conviction related to an accident in which he severely injured a young boy. Sydney’s mother is obsessed with Peyton, focusing on her son to the exclusion of the family, and she’s drawn closer to one of her son’s friends, a young man who gives Sydney the skeeves almost immediately, but no one listens to her.

It’s hard to live under the shadow of someone else. For Sydney, her home life is one constant sense of being ignored by her parents and treated as the good kid, the one who doesn’t need to be dealt with. Everything revolves around her brother, and Sydney experiences frustration that her mother is determined to refuse to hold Peyton accountable for his actions. As her mother resorts to victim blaming, wondering why the young boy was out on his bicycle at night and insisting that Peyton is a fundamentally good kid, Sydney feels herself withdrawing more and more.

By contrast, the Chathams represent something totally different. After being forced to transfer to the much-maligned public high school as her parents run out of money for private school because they sank their resources into her brother’s legal defense, Sydney meets a very different kind of family. Mac, Layla, and Rosie love each other deeply, even if they tease and torment each other, and their parents are equally loving. Their family is warm and welcoming, giving what it has to offer despite not having very many resources. Sydney realises that families don’t all have to look like hers, and that growing up in middle class comfort doesn’t necessarily compensate for missing out on experiences like playing music with family and adventuring in the woods with friends — Sydney begins to build herself a found family, something I really love seeing in young adult literature, as it reflects the reality of the world. As people grow, they drift from the people they’re related to, and finding their people is important.

Yet, there’s a constant and looming tension with her brother’s former sponsor and omnipresent appearance in the house. He starts to feel more and more exploitative, sucking off her mother like a leech, and he gives Sydney the heebie jeebies for a reason. He doesn’t respect her personal boundaries, tries to manipulate her, and certainly made me extremely uncomfortable as a reader, as I waited to see where that particular storyline led, dreading it while wanting to have it resolved at the same time so I could move forward. This problem was a reflection of persistent issues in the book that made me inclined to ding it a few points in my overall assessment.

Textually, some things really dragged in Saint Anything. Dessen played up certain elements a little bit too much and too long, which made some parts of the book a bit ragged and less than engaging. The most troubling plot element really involved a character who used to be fat, lost a ton of weight, and suddenly became popular, well-liked, respected, and attractive. This kind of storyline is extremely common, but it’s still upsetting to be slammed in the face with it every time — it’s like an assault on fat teens who don’t really need to be reminded that everyone thinks they’re gross and they don’t deserve to be treated like people until they’re thin and athletic and perfect.

This makes for a mostly pleasant and relatively light read — if you’re expecting complicated emotional drama and sweeping romance, you won’t find it here. But it is an interesting look into familial relationships, genetic and found, and how people function in relationship to each other when they’re tested by lifechanging events.