Because I know I can count on Sarah Dessen, I pre-ordered Just Listen back in the winter when it first became available on Amazon. It arrived in April. I finally opened it this week. Why so long a wait, you might ask. Sometimes you have to have something on stand-by – a sure thing waiting in the wings for when you hit that inevitable dry spell. And reading a Dessen book always restores my faith that there are indeed well-written, character-driven novels out there. You just have to look for them.
Annabel Greene was the girl who had it all. She was popular; she had a satisfactory modeling career, a good family, and a decent social life. Then something went terribly wrong one night at the end of the school year, and she didn’t have much of anything left. Annabel’s four-year friendship with Sophie, a manipulative but socially powerful girl, imploded, and with it went her status at Lakeview High. What she’s left with is an ugly secret and no one to tell it to.
Stripped of her place in the lunchtime hierarchy, Annabel takes a chance and sits between Clarke, the best friend she once dumped for Sophie, and Owen Armstrong, the “Angriest Boy in School.” Owen is significantly more receptive than Clarke and though he initially ignores her, the two eventually begin to talk and Annabel finds out there’s a lot more to Owen than just anger. Yes, he’s been in trouble in the past, but with court-mandated therapy, he’s learning to control his reactions. Also helping him through is his music. Owen is obsessed with music. Any kind of music – punk, thrash, ska, chant, techno, big band, jazz, hip hop – he’s got some of all of it. He’s constantly searching for new stuff, trying to find something a little more edgy and experimental, searching for enlightenment in song. He even has his own radio show – Anger Management – on at 7 AM on Sundays on the community radio station. Owen introduces Annabel to music and his own personal philosophy of complete honesty at all times, both of which make Annabel uneasy. Because Annabel is the nice girl, she’s used to smoothing everything over with white lies and equivocation. But most of all because she knows Total Honesty and Big Secrets are an impossible combination.
Like Carla Kelly, Dessen writes sad stories with happy endings. As I read this book, I began to mentally catalog the similarities between these two authors Both write quiet, character-driven novels, often centering them around women who have recently suffered difficult personal losses. Neither author takes the easy plotting out of black-and-white villain-initiated treachery. Instead, their characters, and sometimes even their protagonists, fall prey to selfishness, insecurity, or cowardice. But both authors also endow their protagonists with strong moral centers as well as compassion and thoughtfulness. Finish either a Kelly or Dessen book, and you will find yourself turning inwardly, becoming introspective, thinking about life a little differently.
Dessen is funnier, though. Although the story begins in a sad place, once Owen enters Annabel’s life, things lighten up considerably. Dessen has a real knack for drawing teen guys as they are – affectionately, but amusingly. Who hasn’t met a guy who was utterly obsessed with music and just as utterly convinced that his taste is far superior than the average person’s? Owen’s single-minded focus on his music makes for a number of humorous moments. Then there is his sister Mallory – a middle-school girl just as obsessed with fashion who is star struck by Annabel. There is a particularly funny scene is which Mallory organizes a girls’ fashion show/slumber party and ropes Owen into the role of photographer and Annabel into the role of stylist.
Dessen’s humor is a necessary counterpoint to the more serious storylines she develops concurrently, those of Annabel’s festering secret and Annabel’s sister’s struggle with anorexia. Both storylines are handled thoughtfully, but could easily have bogged the book down without the lighter notes Dessen interjects throughout.
Just Listen isn’t a love story, but it does contain one, and the relationship between Owen and Annabel is very sweet, just tentative enough to remind a burned-out romance reader like myself why I look for this boy-girl stuff in a book. Dessen lets the physical stuff play out subtly; a kiss has a lot of meaning here. So often love scenes in romance seem to be just about groping and getting off. Not so here. Annabel’s and Owen’s attempts are tentative, intrinsically vulnerable, and all the more touching when they are managed.
The Young Adult section can be a hard sell to adults, but for many of the readers I’ve known who have tried YA, it’s been very rewarding. The YA genre is broader – storylines can be sadder, characters can be more flawed, endings can be more untidy – but result of this lack of constraint is the occasional amazing read. And Sarah Dessen is at the top of my list of favorite authors in this genre. If you’re heading into any kind of reading slump – why not give her a try? Just Listen would be a great place to start.