Thursday, 14 June 2012

Review: Just Listen, Sarah Dessen

Just Listen

Sarah Dessen

Puffin, 2007 (2006)

Last year, Annabel was "the girl who has everything" — at least that's the part she played in the television commercial for Kopf's Department Store. This year, she's the girl who has nothing: no best friend because mean-but-exciting Sophie dropped her, no peace at home since her older sister became anorexic, and no one to sit with at lunch. Until she meets Owen Armstrong. Tall, dark, and music-obsessed, Owen is a reformed bad boy with a commitment to truth-telling. With Owen's help,maybe Annabel can face what happened the night she and Sophie stopped being friends...

This is the second Sarah Dessen book I have read, after Lock and Key. In it, Annabel Greene is the girl who formerly had it all: a modelling career, friends, popularity, and the picture-perfect family. Now, however, Annabel is facing a school year in which no one is talking to her and she must eat lunch alone. Her ex-best friend is spreading vicious rumours about her. Annabel's middle sister is slowly recovering from an eating disorder. Annabel, not wanting to rock the family boat any more, keeps quiet about her desire to escape the modelling, and about the secret that caused all the rumours in the first place.

Whether it's a formula or not, I can't quite tell, because I haven't read enough of Dessen's books to come to any kind of conclusion, but Just Listen definitely adheres to a certain troubled-girl-saved-by-friendship-with-unlikely-boy pattern. "Saved by boy" isn't something I particular enjoyed reading, especially in YA, but here Owen is more the catalyst that allows Annabel to start saving herself. Owen, too, was perhaps the most compelling character, and certainly my favourite. Avoided by everyone at school because of his violent past, Owen is in fact the personification of a nice guy: he (begrudgingly) helps out his little sister, he's passionate and opinionated, and he's willing to give Annabel the chance to find herself.

I thought the Greene family issues were dealt with well. Whitney's recovery was a touching subplot, and the changing relationships between the three sisters were a nice aside. The whole time, I was willing Annabel to tell her family what was wrong (even though this isn't revealed until relatively late, the hints made it reasonably easy to guess what Annabel was hiding). Her new found unwillingness to sit with her dad and watch the History channel I found particularly sad.

Annabel's gradual reclaiming of her own life kept me turning the pages of this one. The final few chapters were rewarding in this manner: as Annabel starts to speak up, and people start to listen, she starts to find her feet again. With a few chapters left, I couldn't help but power through to the end to see how everything turned out. (Although I was incredibly irritated by the lack of action Annabel took at the fashion show towards the end, which is *eventually* rectified.)

Yet I feel like this review is somewhat muted, and my main problem is that I couldn't really get a grip on Annabel as a character. The book is written in the first person, yet for much of it Annabel is difficult to ascertain. Part of this may be related to the story and the idea that she tries so hard to please everyone else, it's actually detrimental to her own sense of self. However, I found I was drawn to other characters more, namely Owen and Whitney, both of whom seemed more well-rounded and more interesting as a result. I have wavered on a rating for this reason: the story was enjoyable and pulled me in, yet I felt that there was a barrier between the reader and the main character. I didn't ever feel like we truly got inside Annabel's mind. Even when it came to Owen, I didn't feel like there was much of how Annabel actually felt towards him. I thought, for instance, that the car wash scene was cute, but because Annabel seemed more inclined to just let things happen to her than have any active involvement, there was none of that usual build up or tension that one might expect (and hope for!) as a reader.

There was a lot to like about Just Listen, though, and I'm reluctant to end on a downer! I liked how the issues were presented seriously and realistically: these were not DRAMATIC EXTRAORDINARY THINGS that happened to DRAMATIC EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE, but real things that happened to real people, who dealt with them not in bombastic, dramatic fashion, but in messy, well-meaning, every day ways. The friendship that develops between Annabel and Owen was gradual and believable. There is a strange kind of blandness that I can't quite put my finger on that has dogged me on both occasions that I have read one of Dessen's books, but as a contemporary YA novel this was a good read.

(I originally rated this 4 stars on Goodreads, but have since decided that 3 stars is a more accurate reflection of my feelings towards this book.)

Overall rating: 6.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.


  1. Great review, Kit! I was going to say that I can't remember Annabel very well, I only remember liking Owen, and perhaps that's because like you, I wasn't able to connect with her?

    There is a formula to Sarah's writing (especially if you read all her books in a row like I did!) but I do enjoy them and I usually like most of the characters :)

  2. I am ashamed to admit that I've never read a Sarah Dessen book in my life! I generally try to stay away from realistic fiction, and hers is as realistic as it gets. I do admire an author who can create realistic relationships between her characters.
    Great review.


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