article originally published in the Chapel Hill Herald on June 6, 2015
Local author Sarah Dessen’s 12th novel, Saint Anything (Viking, ages 13 and up) is being heralded as her “darkest, most searching, most provocative novel yet.”
I’m not sure about that, but it may have some of the most likeable, deepest characters in any of her books.
The heroine is Sydney Chatham, a teen who has felt invisible, perhaps always, but most profoundly when her brother Peyton becomes his mother’s cause celebre. Peyton is charismatic, attractive and this makes it easy for him to avoid legal scrapes related to drug and alcohol use, breaking and entering. Driving home drunk, one night, he hits and paralyzes teenager David Ibarra whose only fault is being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The seriousness of this crime winds Peyton up in prison where he must serve 17 months. His mother survives by going into a hyperdrive more intense than any PTA responsibility ever launched her.
Sydney, may be more devastated by her parents’ “party line” than her brother’s jail sentence. Her instinct is to apologize, to meet the young brave accident victim who is struggling to regain his life. Both Sydney’s desires are against her parents’ wishes. “Someone had to carry the guilt. If my parents couldn’t-or wouldn’t it was left to me.”
Sydney’s parents cling to anything-Peyton, including his best friend, Ames, a boy who completely creeps out the lonely Sydney. Sydney decides to make a change, leaving the expensive private school where she and Peyton have always gone. She enters a public high school, seeking “somewhere the ghost of my brother, not even dead, didn’t haunt every corner.”
This transition lands Sydney in a pizza parlor after school where she swoons over the best pizza she’s ever tasted and almost as immediately is captivated by the welcoming of the owners, the welcoming Chatham family. To Sydney, they seem the perfect family, because of the remarkable way they surmount their problems. Mrs. Chatham has MS, eldest sister Rosie has struggled with drug addiction, musician brother Mac has lost considerable weight through sheer determination of deciding he’s done being the fat guy and Layla, who feels unlovable, has more compassion than anyone Sydney has ever met.
Sydney’s parents’ preoccupation with her brother allow her surplus time with the Chatham family and she basks in their affection, becoming close to both Layla and Mac until she falls in love with him. As in most Dessen novels neither parental or first love runs smoothly. Mac sees this fact and recovers a saint’s medal from his mother’s jar and inscribes it Saint Anything “so it’s not just about one thing, but anything. That way it can be about what you want it to be.”
Eventually the Chatham warmth rubs off on Sydney, who has a lot of anythings. Her hard judgments about her family are rounded into gentle caring so that she sees her mother is “just hanging on to anything she can to feel normal.” At the same time, Sydney escapes her good-girl tradition and stand up for what she believes in, tells her truth.
Throughout the book there is imagery that surfaces and resurfaces and sometimes the sentiments get a little sappy and overstated, but this is one of the elements that always nourishes Dessen fans. They may miss Sarah’s typical beach settings, but this book offers depth without losing the fast-pacing that’s Dessen’s specialty.