Let me start by saying that I will follow Sarah Dessen to the end of the world and back. I’ve been reading her books since I was in junior high and I think she provides the YA community with some of the most accurate representations of women coming of age. Therefore, saying that a book is “not my favorite Sarah Dessen book” does not at all mean that I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read a SD book that I didn’t wholeheartedly like.
Saint Anything certainly wasn’t my favorite Sarah Dessen book, but it still had all the warm and fuzzy qualities that make reading one of her books feel like coming home to an old friend. I tend to prefer the books that take place in Colby, Dessen’s fictional beach town where, let’s face it, we all want to spend our summers, and was therefore a little bit disappointed when Colby was only mentioned in passing. However, everything else I was hoping for was still present: an intelligent, witty teenage protagonist, an ever-present family with its own share of complicated issues, and a local business complete with a new set of funky, multi-dimensional secondary characters. Oh, and of course, an absolute dreamboat of a male lead.
So let’s break this down a little. First of all, I loved Sydney, the book’s protagonist, but that didn’t surprise me since I don’t think I’ve ever disliked one of Dessen’s leading ladies. I liked that Sydney was honest with herself, which I find is pretty rare with any sort of narrator, YA or otherwise. I liked that she had a realistic relationship with her family – she grew angry with her parents’ strict set of rules but also recognized that they had a logical purpose and came from a place of love. The irritating YA trend of the “absent parents” never seems to be an issue with Dessen’s books; the family dynamic is part of what makes her books so relatable. However, I definitely would’ve liked to see more of a resolution between Sydney and her mom.
Another of the book’s qualities with which I was so on board was the relationship between Sydney and Layla. Again, it’s no secret that the YA genre has a severe lack of woman-on-woman friendships (Bechdel test, anyone?). However, Sydney’s relationship with Layla was far more complex and intriguing than her relationship with Mac, the love interest, and I found that to be perfectly acceptable. Frankly, I found Sydney/Mac to be kind of boring, but Sydney/Layla kept me reading, mainly because I saw so many similarities between their friendship and some of my own friendships. For example, being neglected by a best friend as soon as they find a new boyfriend or girlfriend is something I (and probably most of you) can absolutely, 100% relate to. There were a number of points in the book where I just wanted to jump through the pages, give Sydney or Layla a giant hug, and say, “it’ll be okay, I promise”.
However, as I mentioned, this wasn’t my favorite of Sarah Dessen’s books, and there are a few reasons why. For one, as I said, I found Sydney and Mac’s relationship pretty…eh. I was on board in the beginning when they were still figuring out their feelings for each other, but once they were “official” their story kind of fell flat and I just didn’t care anymore.
Luckily, there was enough other stuff going on at the same time, but even this wasn’t ideal for me. In a sense, I thought there was too much going on. I’m all for subplots, but not when they seem excessive. For example, I understand the need for interesting side characters, but I really could’ve done without the constant emphasis on Mac’s band and its quest for edgy, metaphorical genius. Similarly, I thought Mrs. Chatham had the potential to be a really dynamic addition to the story, but her words of wisdom and struggle with MS seemed like more of a plot device than something I should actually care about.
In fact, a lot of the book’s secondary characters ended up being nothing more than plot devices. While Sydney’s mother was realistic and dimensional, her father was nothing more than a reiteration of his wife’s ideals meant to further emphasize Sydney’s struggle with being invisible. When Sydney meets Layla and Mac, she is quickly inducted into their group of friends, but aside from the Chatham siblings, no one really struck a chord with me. Eric was a typical, narcissistic “hipster” in whose mind everything had to have a deeper, unintelligible meaning, and I honestly don’t know what the hell the point of Irv’s character was (other than to provide diversity to an otherwise all-white cast of characters).
Perhaps my biggest problem and the one thing I really just can’t figure out is the character of Ames, Sydney’s brother Peyton’s best friend from rehab. To say the least, his character and his contribution to the story was unrealistic and borderline absurd. At first I thought the Ames subplot could go somewhere interesting, since his creepy, pedophilic aura was clear to me early on. However, I was really confused by the climax of that story, and even more confused when it had no resolution or consequence. So yes, I know he was meant to creep me out, and he certainly did his job well, but I still don’t understand why.
Okay, so despite my very clear criticisms, I swear I liked this book. I flew through it as I do all of Sarah Dessen’s books, and if you’re a fan, I don’t think this story will disappoint. However, I’m a critical book reader, and I consider it my duty to be brutally honest, even when it comes to my favorite authors.
If you’ve read Saint Anything, let me know what you thought!
P.S. I know I didn’t provide a summary, so if you so desire, check it out on Goodreads!