Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sarah Dessen

I haven't written about the teen side of "From Tots to Teens" spectrum in a while.  I had been itching to write about teen books for a few months, but nothing seemed right.  And then after Christmas, I got a Facebook message from a friend, asking why I hadn't read Sarah Dessen's latest book, What Happened to Goodbye.  I wasn't sure why I hadn't, actually - I had bought it, more than a year ago, in hardcover.  It has basketball in it, my favorite sport.  I love Sarah Dessen's books and read them frequently, recommending them to friends.  And when my friend posted that question, I was looking for a good read.  I picked it up and read it in two days.  Then I went back to some of my favorite Sarah Dessen novels, because I was sick, searching, and badly in need of comfort reading.  In two weeks, I read four Sarah Dessen novels! Then another friend mentioned she had the Advance Readers' Copy of The Moon and More, her newest novel, which was very exciting!  I read that one in two days also!

I've read these books several times at different points in my life.  This time, I took four books (Just Listen, Lock and Key, Along for the Ride, and What Happened to Goodbye) and decided to write about one particular theme that was resonating with me.  Maybe it's because I'm a mom now, maybe it's just what has been on my mind lately.  Not only did I need comfort reading, but I needed to see families - all kinds of families.  They are all represented in Dessen's books.  Good ones, bad ones, healthy ones, dysfunctional ones.  What I think is most interesting about the way Dessen portrays these families is how the central characters, all teenagers, change how they see their families - their flaws, their good moments.  It connects the teens to their own families for a moment in time, and it can be magic.  

In Just Listen, Annabel is holding on to secrets.  She has spent the whole summer pretending that things will be the same when school starts, but of course, they aren't.  Her best friend, Sophie, hates her, has rejected her, and because Sophie is popular, now it feels like everyone is against Annabel.  This book is really about Annabel, about how this secret changes her, and how her relationship with Owen, who is one of my favorite teenage boy characters - I won't spoil that for you!

Annabel is the youngest of three sisters - Kirsten is the oldest, and Whitney is the middle sister.  The time of this novel is a time of growth, reflection and change for all three sisters.  Annabel describes a photo taken before these events: "In the picture, we are all intertwined: Kirsten's fingers are wrapped in my mother's, Whitney has her arm over her shoulder and I'm in front, curved slightly toward my mom as well, my arm around her waist." (p. 79).  Before the novel takes place (the picture was taken three years prior), the girls are a cohesive unit, a very visible family - all touching.  Throughout the year before the book starts, the girls have grown apart.  They are all struggling with their own issues and some of their problems are causing cracks in the family relationships.

Then all three of the girls are separately reminded of an incident that took place on the day of Annabel's ninth birthday party.  The incident is important to each of the girls for different reasons, and they each remember it differently.  Annabel reflects "So many versions of just one memory, and yet none of them were right or wrong.  Instead, they were all pieces.  Only when fitted together, edge to edge, could they even begin to tell the whole story." (p. 236).  And to me, this exemplifies families - everyone in the family remembers things or experiences them slightly differently.  It is the mosaic that makes the whole picture.  Even this novel isn't the whole story of the family. Thinking about the family portrait I mentioned earlier, Annabel realizes "...that was just one day, one shot.  In the time since, we had arranged and rearranged ourselves so many times...All i had to do was ask, and I, too, would be easily brought back, surrounded and immersed, finding myself safe, somewhere in between." (p. 353).  In this novel, the sisters are reunited through the ways they change.  They grow together, instead of apart.

In Lock & Key, Ruby has no family to speak of in the beginning.  She has been discovered living in a house without power after her mother left her.  Ruby has been doing her best to stay afloat, but it isn't enough, and she is turned over to her older sister, Cora.  In Ruby's eyes, Cora abandoned her family when she went off to college and never returned.  So Ruby really doesn't want to be with Cora and her husband, Jamie, at all.  She feels like Cora must hate her and her mom.  Ruby thinks she would be better off on her own.

While in the prep school Cora and Jamie send her to, Ruby is given an assignment.  She must define a word pulled out of a jar, and the word Ruby pulls out is 'family'.  What Ruby learns about herself, the family she was born into, and the family she creates through this extended assignment.  In this novel, Dessen creates a mother who isn't very likable.  In fact, while Ruby sees some of her mother's flaws, she works around them, mostly because she is a minor and has to cope with her mother.  As the book progresses and Ruby settles into a different life and family, the reader begins to realize how at her best, Ruby's mother was dysfunctional.  At her worst, she was addicted and abusive.  It is hard for me as a mother to read about Ruby's recollections of her mother.  But that was Ruby's life and she made it work until it doesn't work anymore.  

Finally, part of Ruby's realization about family pulls together these disparate lives she has been living - the poor, dysfunctional barely-making-it life, and the rich, comfortable, healthy life she lives now.  Ruby thinks "What is family?  They were the people who claimed you.  In good, in bad, in parts or in whole, they were the ones who showed up, who stayed in there, regardless..." (p. 400).  Ruby isn't perfect - after all, she has lived a life that has made her tough and resilient, but also suspicious and untrusting.  But she has found a perfect way to balance the family she has with the family she has come from in a way that works for her.

Auden from Along for the Ride doesn't have a perfect family either.  She has lived with her mother since her parents divorced.  Her mother is aloof, someone who is tightly controlled.  She is an academic and at the top of her field.  But that means Auden is mostly on her own.  Her father's new wife, Heidi, has invited Auden to stay with them the summer after graduation.  Her father is trying to write his second novel, one he has been working on for years.  Heidi just had a baby.  Auden's mother promises that Auden's father will be no help at all with the baby, just as he was with Auden and her brother.  All Auden knows is that she needs to try something new.  So she travels to Colby, a beach town where Heidi and her dad live.  And she has her carefully planned life and expectations turned upside down.

Auden has always felt that "school was my solace, and studying let me escape, allowing me to live a thousand vicarious lives." (p. 9).  She has spent her whole life trying to get her parents' attention and their approval by rigidly sticking to academic success.  After all, both of her parents have succeeded in the academic world.  This summer she is beginning to realize that while she spent all this time studying, she was missing doing all the things regular kids do.  She doesn't have a lot of friends - she studied too hard for that.  And Auden hasn't had a food fight, gone to a party.  This summer in Colby, she is beginning to understand the freedom that comes from not living up to anyone's expectations.

One of the things that is made most clear in this Dessen novel is how teenagers, those getting ready to spread their wings, begin to change how they see their parents.  But Auden, who has grown up hearing stories her mother has told about her father, begins to experience her parents' flaws firsthand.  Her mother told Auden about her stepmother, Heidi, "' I just hope she's not expecting your father to be of much help,' she said...'I was lucky if he changed a diaper every once in a while.'" (p. 13).  After Heidi and Auden's father have a fight, Auden realizes "My dad might have made an effort to sound like he would compromise.  But again, he had gotten his way." (p. 216).  And Auden's mother doesn't like how Auden is spreading her wings this summer either: "'I spend eighteen years teaching you about the importance of taking yourself seriously, and in a matter of weeks you're wearing pink bikinis and totally boy crazy.'" (. 252).  Auden has to learn how to become herself, which involves learning to see her relationship with her parents as it is and as it might become.

In What Happened to Goodbye, Mclean has spent the last three years moving with her father from town to town, rehabilitating poorly run restaurants.  Her parents divorced and Mclean decided to choose living with her father.  The reason for the divorce seems straight-forward at the start of the novel.  Mclean's mother had an affair with the head basketball coach at Defriese University, the college in their town.  Not only is the affair a matter of local gossip, but her father has always been a huge Defriese basketball fan, so Mclean feels like her mother's choice is even more personal.  Mclean has kept her mother at arm's length for a long time.  She feels that "my mother wanted control over me, and I wouldn't give it to her.  It made me crazy, so she in turn made me crazy." (p. 82).

Mclean has taken her father's side in the divorce, no matter how much he insists that she spend time with her mother and her now-husband.  After spending some time with her mom, Mclean begins to realize that maybe keeping herself away from her mom for so long has hurt more than she thought.  "I must have seemed like such a stranger to her...both of us wading through this limbo world between what we'd been and what we might be.  Like seeing her from a distance earlier, this thought made me unexpectedly sad.." (p. 183-4).  Mclean, too, must come to terms with what has happened between her parents.  Of course, as an adult, I know that divorce isn't just one person's fault.  Mclean has to see this for herself, though, as part of the process of growing up.

Finally, The Moon and More.  I don't want to say anything much about it, since I read it before its publication date in June.  I'll just say that in this novel, Emaline has an unusual family structure, too.  She has grown up in an extended step-family, with stepsisters who she works with in a daily basis.  Emaline hasn't had much contact with her biological father until this summer.  Her interactions with both parts of her family tugged at my heart.  It is a great book, one that combines some of the best of Sarah Dessen's themes with some new ideas.

Finally, I'll end with a line from one of Frances & Gloria's current favorite movies, Hotel Transylvania, which also has a teenager spreading her wings in it.  "Children have to discover things for themselves.  They'll stumble and fall, laugh and cry, but such is life."  Part of discovering things for themselves is seeing their families for what they really are, not just what they have always hoped they might be.

Just Listen.  Sarah Dessen.  Viking, 2006.
Lock & Key. Sarah Dessen.  Speak: Penguin, 2008.
Along for the Ride. Sarah Dessen.  Speak: Penguin, 2009.
What Happened to Goodbye. Sarah Dessen. Viking, 2011.
The Moon and More.  Sarah Dessen.  Viking, 2013.

Just Listen and Lock & Key borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library, Along for the Ride and What Happened to Goodbye from personal collection.  The Moon and More read in Advanced Readers Copy.

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