ARC Review: Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen


title:  Saint Anything 

author:  Sarah Dessen 

pages: 448 

format: Kindle ARC 

isbn/asin: 978-0451474704

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 4/5 [in the genre] or 7/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  Fans of Jennifer E. Smith, Gayle Foreman, and Heather Demetrios.  People who enjoy heartfelt stories.  

will i read this author again?:  Yes, I think I will. 
will i continue the series?:  N/A

My Ratings Explained

Peyton, Sydney's charismatic older brother, has always been the star of the family, receiving the lion's share of their parents' attention and—lately—concern. When Peyton's increasingly reckless behavior culminates in an accident, a drunk driving conviction, and a jail sentence, Sydney is cast adrift, searching for her place in the family and the world. When everyone else is so worried about Peyton, is she the only one concerned about the victim of the accident?

Enter the Chathams, a warm, chaotic family who run a pizza parlor, play bluegrass on weekends, and pitch in to care for their mother, who has multiple sclerosis. Here Sydney experiences unquestioning acceptance. And here she meets Mac, gentle, watchful, and protective, who makes Sydney feel seen, really seen, for the first time.

Come back tomorrow for an exclusive interview with Sarah Dessen and coverage of tonight's stop on her tour!  

the basics
Saint Anything was my first Sarah Dessen novel (I know, I know!), but I can say with confidence that it won't be my last.  There's something languid about Dessen's writing, in the way of a lazy summer day that returns to you years later, savoring of nostalgia.  With simple, clean language, Dessen evokes a voice that is authentically teenaged and emotionally gripping.  Don't let the cover blurb fool you; the novel is about so much more than Sydney's growing affection for Mac.  Moreso, it's about Sydney's efforts to stay afloat in the wake of her older brother's careless act of destruction.  It's about the power of true friendship to survive through hell, and the power of family to endure countless fractures.  I did find myself wavering in the middle, where the pacing flags, and there were moments where the narrative resembled an essay more than a book.  However, these were minor flaws in a gorgeous book whose characters swept me into their world--and who will linger.  

plot . 4/5
Dessen takes a plot that could easily follow predictable lines, and gives it its own life.  When the novel begins, Peyton has already committed his crime, is moments away from sentencing.  After the trial, Sydney just wants a new start.  So, she switches schools, and meets Layla Chatham.  Though the blurb only names Mac, I found Sydney's friendship with Layla much more central to the plot, and in some ways more compelling.  Layla sees the invisible girl and draws out the vibrancy hidden beneath a meek shell.  She's not wholly responsible for Sydney's transformation, but her friendship provides a safe base for Sydney to find her own way.  

But even that's a simplification.  There are so many other layers to this plot.  Sydney's complicated feelings for Peyton.  Her changing relationship with her old friends.  Her frustration with her parents and their unhealthy methods of coping.  Her adorably sweet relationship with Mac.  The increasingly creepy attentions of Ames.  The process of learning to stand up for herself.  I found the ending somewhat iffy, but I'll admit that it fits the situation.  While the middle drags on, and Syd's relationship with Mac begins somewhat thinly, I felt truly enraptured by the end.  It's not an easy book--there will be times when you're truly frustrated and want to scream, especially at Sydney's oblivious, controlling mother--but it's a real one.  

concept . 5/5
In a moment of heartbreak and tragedy, Dessen reveals a story of strength, courage, and growing up.  She chooses to focus on the family of the perpetrator, not the victim.  It's an unpopular stance--and one I wholly applaud.  Focusing on Peyton's family allows for a complicated array of emotions, and requires an active effort at empathy.  It also reveals the often overlooked plight of the families, who are left harboring the perpetrator's guilt and in many ways, their punishment.  This conflict nags at Sydney through the whole book.  On one hand, she wants to blame her brother, or to be blamed herself.  On the other hand, she sees her brother as a flawed, but not a truly evil individual.  Dessen pulls no punches in this novel.  There are no easy answers, no satisfying wrap-ups.  The guilty are not fully punished, the innocent not fully protected.  It's just life.  

characters . 5/5
When the plot flagged, the characters kept me reading.  I closed the book feeling as though I knew them, deeply.  Sydney is a perfect choice as narrator.  I related easily to her meekness, her feelings of invisibility and fear to speak up.  I delighted in watching her grow over the course of the story.  She stands at a contrast to Layla, her vibrant, perhaps over-the-top quirky friend.  Layla's sometime insecurity and selfishness prevent her from being the flat bestie-cheerleader.  Eric was my other favorite.  His pompous philosophizing added an appreciated bit of comic relief.  By contrast, Mac was somewhat less exciting, although that's my own bias.  On the more complicated end, you have Peyton and Sydney's parents.  Peyton is a figure of mystery for a while, revealed only through Sydney's rememberings until she finally reaches out to him.  Sydney's parents are horrifically frustrating, but so believable in their cluelessness and defensiveness.  And then there's Ames, all too recognizable and easily loathed.  It's a cast you can easily pick out in your own life, for better or worse.  

style . 4/5
Sydney lives her life in the details others miss.   The crumpled plaid of her father's shirt on the night Peyton was arrested.  The things people say with their eyes, not their words.  Her perspective gives the writing a thoughtful, lingering quality that I enjoyed.  She can also be quite funny in her observations.  And much of it is observation.  Dessen does a great job of showing you, not just telling you, how Sydney feels invisible.  The dialogue has its stilted moments, and there were a few odd bits of phrasing, but these were far between.  Dessen's style is simple and beautiful, pertty without being affected.  

mechanics . 4/5
Besides the pacing, there were a few mechanical issues of note.  One on both the good and bad side was the Saint motif.  I wish Dessen had introduced it earlier, because it felt a little thrown in.  However, I loved the way she used it to describe the effect of others on Sydney's life, and her effect on theirs.  On the other hand, I wasn't much a fan of the way she'd hint at what would happen--for example, beginning a chapter with, "I didn't know then, but __."  Those moments felt like little spoilers.  I'd rather have found out on my own.  

take home message
Saint Anything is a bittersweet story of love and friendship in the face of tragedy.  Raw and honest, it satisfies without pandering.  

Note: I received this copy from the publisher in exchange for a review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.