May 15, 2012

Review: Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
Published: 2006, Viking
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Source: Library book

Just Listen was recommended to me by my friend as her favorite Sarah Dessen novel, and the best as a first exposure to Dessen's work. My feelings towards this novel are complicated. I liked it. Really, I did. I definitely thought that Dessen focused on some important messages and understood the needs of her target teenage audience. But it's not a novel I'd feel the need to ever read again.

Something happened at the end of the school year last year, something so big that it has completely destroyed Annabel Greene's relationship with her best friend, Sophie, and then her self-imposed isolation over the summer alienated her from anyone else who would have cared. Annabel starts out the school year starring in a local department store’s back-to-school commercials as “the girl who has everything.” But her real life couldn’t be any further from the truth.

Annabel has been modeling practically since her birth, following in the footsteps of her older sisters Kirsten and Whitney. Although she is the youngest child, Annabel acts like the typical middle child in so many ways. She’s not as outspoken and friendly as Kirsten, nor is she as beautiful and mysterious as Whitney. Over the years, Annabel has learned to keep her thoughts to herself. She doesn’t enjoy modeling anymore, but she knows that to quit it would break her mother’s heart. After Whitney is diagnosed with anorexia, Annabel does everything she can to not add additional complications to her family’s life. But the problem is that by doing all this Annabel is repressing who she truly is.

Annabel’s process of learning to be true to herself is a very long one. Her interactions with everyone are strained, especially with her family. Through a series of flashbacks, the reader sees instances of how life used to be for Annabel, and what happened that caused her life to take this turn. The most important part of Annabel’s self-acceptance is, naturally, a boy. Owen Armstrong uses music to define his life and strongly believes in telling the truth in all circumstances, no matter how much the truth hurts.

I thought the characters were generally likable. Annabel is a decent narrator. Besides my initial sympathy that her life really does suck when the book begins, I didn't feel too strongly about Annabel. I ended up liking her a lot more when Annabel is finally able to start confronting her issues. And my heart went out for her once she finally reveals what caused her to completely close off and hide her feelings from the world. I think that the Annabel at the end of the book has become someone I'd actually like to know. As the love interest, I thought Owen was okay. I understand that his characterization and role are integral in helping out Annabel. However, Owen's strong convictions (and, dare I say it, self-righteousness) are annoying at parts. I did like the idea of how Owen uses music to get through his own problems, and that he and Annabel are able to connect through music. The other characters are not bad, but neither are they great. It is frustrating when I do not feel strongly towards any of the characters within a novel.
My biggest gripe with this book is how by the end Dessen seems to ignore the ever-important "show, don't tell" rule in books. One particular scene near the end of the novel, where Annabel is finally taking initiative and trying to solve her problems, has the potential to be very powerful. But instead of showing that scene, Dessen leaves the reader hanging. Actually, quite a few of the major decisions that Annabel makes are succinctly summarized within the last twenty pages. I'm not against summarization in novels, but since these particular decisions are the result of much struggle on the protagonist's part, it would have been nice to have read the scenes actually drawn out.

I think that Dessen's novel does a great job of showing how complicated our lives can become, and how easy it is to let the problems and worries of others consume us. I do love how music inspires both Owen and Annabel to find meaning in their lives and helps give Annabel the courage to finally speak the truth and live her life in the way that she wants. I also liked how focused Dessen is in explaining the Greene family dynamics. Family definitely has a huge role in the personal development of teens, but is not always a focus in teen lit. In general I do not enjoy contemporary YA lit; however, that's a personal preference, and I do think I'd recommend it to others who like this genre.
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.

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