Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen | Book Review

TITLE: Just Listen
AUTHOR: Sarah Dessen
PUBLISHER/YEAR: Viking Juvenile / 2006
SOURCE: Purchased

Goodreads / Author's Website

I spent a lot of time this summer catching up on Sarah Dessen's catalogue, like a lot. I feel like every second book I read was Dessen. I don't think this was a necessary bad thing since her books overall are fantastic. That having been said, I did find myself getting a little tired of the formula which is probably the main reason why I didn't love this book as much as I thought I would. I definitely enjoyed Just Listen and actually think it's one of Dessen's better novels; I just didn't fall in love. That having been said I think this book does a particularly good job of integrating romance with some very serious issues ranging from sexual assault to anorexia. The issues are given the gravity they deserve, but the book is still hopeful and accessible; it's a balancing act that Dessen has perfected.

Annabel used to be one of the most popular girls at her school. She was a local model, was best friends with Sophie, the resident mean girl, and a gorgeous house with a relatively happy family. Everything changed over the summer, leaving Annabel with just remnants of her old life. Sophie hates her, her older sister developed anorexia and she's alone and bullied at school. The only person who talks to her is Owen, the school's bad boy. He's the sort of brooding, music obsessed former bad boy who's now all about the truth after going to anger management therapy. With him Annabel begins to open up about what happened to her the night that everything changed for her.

I have to say Just Listen was a difficult read for me. I still enjoyed it; it was just more challenging than I expected. Annabel as a character hit me hard you guys. She had been through a lot already and she may not have been the nicest, most sympathetic girl to begin with, but the things she went through, well they change you. Sophie dropped her because she thought that Annabel was hooking up with her boyfriend. Well, you can infer pretty early on that this was actually a case of sexual assault. Not only that, but Annabel has nobody she can confide in. Her family is so worried about her older sister's anorexia that she doesn't want to put more pressure on the family. She represses her feelings time and time again and it's painful to read about and I found that it took me back to high school. Annabel has an inner strength about her, but she also has so much going on. She's a wonderfully complex character.

Her romance with Owen is touching. It's slow and sweet. They build a friendship based on truth and honesty. It was a very adult relationship in a YA novel and it was refreshing. It wasn't unrealistically adult, but they didn't fall into a lot of the unnecessary drama that happens too often. Their problems aren't overly dramatic; when they have issues the feel real. Owen too is working through his own issues and he's learning who he is. He might seem a little older than the typical high school guy, but I'm guessing a year of anger management will do that to you? Basically, I think the romance worked because I got a sense that they cared about each other and it wasn't just love at first sight. They built up to it and had a friendship beforehand.

One of the things I love most in a Sarah Dessen novel is the family dynamics she presents. Every novel is slightly different, but I can't think of one where the family is non-existent. Just Listen is no different. Annabel's family has a strong presence throughout the novel. They're all trying their best despite the difficult circumstances they find themselves in. Depression and anorexia are two things they've faced and Annabel is acutely aware of this. They're not the perfect family; they don't always see what's going on with their daughter and sisters. They don't always express themselves appropriately and well Annabel does feel the need to hide her sexual assault from everybody including her family, but they were there. They cared even if they didn't always show it. They were a family going through a tough time and I for one found it to be very relateable.

Just Listen is one of those books that had me reflecting on my own family and friendships. It had me questioning what it was to be a good friend, to listen and to support. I think one of the things Dessen does best is create characters and situations that a lot of people can relate to and this is no exception. It's a book that warrants reflection despite it's glossy cover.

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