Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

Accomplished author Sarah Dessen has written an outstanding novel about a young girl who must deal with the aftermath of a tragedy while trying to assert her own identity.

The story opens with sixteen year old Sydney Stanford attending the trial of her older brother, Peyton, who has just been sentenced to seventeen months in jail for impaired driving. Driving drunk, Peyton hit fifteen year old David Ibarra who was riding his bike home at one in the morning. The accident left Ibarra with the use of his arms but unable to walk.

It seems that Sydney's family has always revolved around Peyton, the oldest child and only son, who is three years older than Sydney. Sydney always idolized her older brother who seemed fearless and bold. But when Peyton moved to the upper campus of Perkins Day, a private school they both attended, things began to go wrong. Peyton began skipping school and by tenth grade was arrested for smoking pot. After doing his community service, three months later her was arrested for breaking and entering. This soon became a pattern; he would get arrested for drugs, shoplifting or reckless driving, do his punishment and simply revert back to his old ways. After his first shoplifting offense during which he was found in possession of pot, Peyton was sent to rehab. But the problems continued until finally he was forced to withdraw from Perkins Day. A break-in at the largest home in their wealthy neighbourhood, the Arbors, resulted in Peyton being sentenced to three months. It was during this time that Ames, a guy Peyton had met in Narcotics Anonymous, became a fixture around their home. Even while Peyton served seven weeks at the county jail. For Sydney, Ames made her uncomfortable mainly because of his constant watchfulness and the way he was always finding a way to touch her.

When Sydney entered grade ten at Perkins Day, she and her best friend Jenn, made friends with Meredith who was a petite competitive gymnast. Things seemed to have settled down. Peyton had graduated the previous June and was taking hospitality classes with Ames at Lakeview Tech while working as a valet at a nearby hotel. The day after Valentine's Day, Peyton left work and after spending time with a friend drinking, he drove home drunk, hitting David Ibarra and seriously injuring him.

After the trial and the start of the new school year, Sydney is now attending Jackson High School while Peyton is serving his time at the Lincoln Correctional Facility. On her way home from school after the first day, Sydney decides to pull into Seaside Pizza. At Seaside, Sydney orders a slice of pizza and meets a girl, Layla, whose family runs the business. Sydney doesn't return to Seaside right away, but she does encounter Layla at Jackson along with Layla's former boyfriend, Eric, who is determined to break into the music industry. Layla invites Sydney to join her at a club on Friday evening where Eric and her brother Mac's band are performing. At Bendo she meets Layla`s mother, Tricia Chatham who has MS and is in a wheelchair as well as older sister, Rosie and is introduced to Mac. She learns that Rosie was a former figure skater who has been busted for drugs. As Sydney leaves so she can be home in time for her curfew, Layla invites her to drop by their house anytime.

Sydney`s mother is planning for them to go see Peyton on Family Day at Lincoln Correctional Facility. This is not something Sydney wants to do especially since Peyton doesn`t want her to come either. Deeply distressed when her mother forces her to agree to attend, Sydney is questioned at school by Layla and tells her what Peyton did. Layla admits that she never forgets a face and saw Sydney that day in the courthouse when Peyton was being sentenced. She also shares with Sydney what happened to Rosie. Worried that Layla's knowledge about Peyton will change their friendship she is happy to see that this is not the case. "I was the sister of the neighborhood delinquent, drug addict, and now drunk driver. It didn't matter that I'd done none of these things. With shame, like horseshoes, proximity counts."

Gradually Sydney finds herself part of Layla's group at school which includes Eric, her brother Mac and Irving Fearrington a big black fellow who loves to eat. At home her father manages to convince her mother to go away with him for the weekend to the St. Ivy Islands. Not trusting Sydney to be alone, they arrange. against Sydney's objections, for Ames and his girlfriend, Marla, to stay the weekend. But Sydney knows she cannot be left alone with Ames, whom she finds extremely creepy. Her concerns are validated when she arrives home after school to find Ames alone and candles on the dining room table. Freaked out, Sydney calls Seaside Pizza where she eventually speaks to Layla and asks her if she can stay the night. Relieved that Layla is coming over, Sydney has to deal with Ames who sees that she has thwarted whatever plans he had for them. When Layla shows up with Mac, Ames is his creepy self, and clearly irritated he tries to intimidate Sydney by telling her he will be letting her parents know about Layla visiting. When her mother calls, Layla manages to get herself invited over for the night, thus breaking Ames attempt to bully Sydney.

Sydney becomes more and more involved in the Chathams life, spending almost every afternoon at Seaside. She helps take Rosie to a skating session and learns that Mac was once very heavy but has lost a great deal of weight. At home the Family Day at Lincoln never happens because Peyton loses his visiting privileges, leaving Sydney's mother distraught and overly involved in Peyton's situation,  against the advice of their lawyer. In an attempt to convince her mother that Layla's family is suitable and that she is a good friend, she brings her mother to Seaside Pizza. This works and Sydney is allowed to spend a Saturday night with Layla and her family. The evening is a wonderful mixture of family and friends, music and camaraderie. A walk into the woods with Mac, Layla, Irv and Eric leads to Sydney learning about the abandoned carousel. The night ends happily for Sydney with Mac sharing his room with Sydney and Layla.

Meanwhile Layla gets the idea that she and Sydney could starting delivering pizza's together. At first Mac dismisses the idea but Layla's father allows them to give it a try. On one of the deliveries, Layla meets a rich guy, Mason Albert Spencer who ends up becoming her boyfriend and a bad choice. When Layla eventually ditches Sydney for time with Spence, Sydney starts helping Mac with the deliveries. This time allows the two of them to begin to form a strong friendship and eventually love begins to blossom.

But on the home front trouble is brewing. When Peyton finishes his first "course" at Lincoln, Sydney's mother announces that they will all be going down for his "graduation". However this is not what Peyton wants and when the visit is nixed by Peyton, a family crisis ensues that turns Sydney's world upside down.


Anyone who hasn't read a Sarah Dessen novel should definitely consider doing so. Dessen writes in an realistic way about the struggles that young people encounter in life. Saint Anything is engaging because of the believable characters that populate this story with its themes of forgiveness, acceptance and the struggle to develop one's own identity.

One of the more interesting characters is Dessen`s novel is Sydney`s mother, Julie. Julie Stanford appears to be a mother who believes she is a good parent by continuing to rescue her son instead of letting him face the consequences of his actions. Dessen shows the reader immediately that the Stanford family revolves around Peyton with Sydney's description of how his portrait hangs "directly across from the huge glass door, right about the wood credenza and the Chinese vase..." Julie has what might be considered a typical upper middle class mother's reaction to her son`s run-ins with the police; she can`t believe he`s guilty. Unable to confront the reality of Peyton`s situation she deflects, focusing on things that don`t matter. When he was caught running away from police after being caught with pot and gets scraped up, Julie tries to convince Sydney`s dad that they have a police brutality case. `The more Peyton got into trouble, the more my mom seemed desperate to blame anyone and everyone else. the school was out to get him. The cops were too rough. But my brother was no innocent: all you had to do was look at the facts." After hearing her mother blame David Ibarra for being out riding his bike at two in the morning, Sydney realizes that her "mom would never be able to really hold Peyton responsible for what he'd done. Their bond was too tight, too tangled, for her to see reason. "

Julie continues to be enmeshed with Peyton despite his being in prison. Their lawyer, Sawyer is surprised when Julie takes the unusual step of contacting the warden and tells Julie that the best thing for Peyton is to leave him to serve his sentence "with as little interference as possible" However, Julie, supported by both Michelle and Ames, insists that it's important for Peyton to know his family cares and to be involved.

Sydney's mother's inability to face the reality of Peyton's situation causes Sydney to feel as though she has to carry the guilt for her family. "For the first time, I wondered if this was the reason I was so obsessed with David Ibarra and his aftermath and story. Someone had to carry the guilt. If my parents couldn't -- or wouldn't -- it was left to me."

As the main character in the novel, Sydney struggles to find her place in a family totally consumed with her brother Peyton. Sydney struggles on two fronts with her parents. First she wants to be truly seen by them as a person in her own right. "I was used to being invisible. People rarely saw me, and if they did, they never looked close. I wasn't shiny and charming like my brother, stunning and graceful like my mother, or smart and dynamic like my friends. That's the thing though. You always think you want to be noticed. Until you are."

When Sydney is with Mac on a delivery she tells him that her brother's big personality and troubles have made her "invisible" to her parents. She tells Mac, that when her brother's "around, he fills the view. You can't look anywhere else..." It is gentle Mac, who is very protective of Sydney who gradually makes her feel noticed as they begin texting one another about the deliveries Mac makes. Mac is the first person who truly "sees" Sydney.

Secondly, Sydney wants to be trusted by them and for them to realize Peyton's mistakes are not hers.
They also believe that she will behave just as Peyton has. When Sydney attempts to convince her parents to leave her home unsupervised, her mother states "I think we all know well what a lack of supervision can lead to." This deeply hurts Sydney. "The last thing I deserved was to have the same old assumptions applied, but clearly, this wasn't about me." Sydney wants to tell her mother that she finds Ames creepy and hopes that her mother will see that she's distressed about Ames by actually seeing her for once but she has no luck.

When her mother catches Sydney in a compromising situation, she never allows Sydney the chance to really explain herself and never actually listens to her. Instead, her response is to tie Sydney down so tight that she has nothing except school and studying. It takes the crisis with Ames and Mac's mother to force Sydney's mother to finally "see" her. Her mother admits that she drove to the hospital with every attempt to drag her home, but then she admits,
" 'I saw you,' she said simply.
Me, surrounded by people I cared about. Me, being a good person, a good friend, all the things she prided herself on having taught me. After so many months of looking at me only in the context of my brother, finally, in that bright institutional light, my mother had glimpsed me simply as Sydney, with no precedent or comparison."
Without Peyton to colour her view, Sydney's mother was able to see her and recognize that she is a different person from Peyton.

One aspect of this novel that was especially appealing was how Dessen used Mac and Sydney's pizza deliveries as a window to the lives of ordinary people. Sydney tells Mac that she likes doing deliveries because "It's something about seeing all these people in their separate places. Like little snapshots of the whole world as it's happening simultaneously..." Sydney becomes very adept at predicting the kind of people who order based on what's on their pizza's. For Sydney she later realizes that helping Mac has helped her see the reality of life. "Working with Mac like this, I'd caught brief glimpses of so many lives, tiny bits of a million stories..."

Saint Anything is a beautifully crafted, honest novel about how becoming an adult is never an easy task. Each one of the young characters in Saint Anything has their problems whether it be Mac who doesn't want to take over his father's pizza business, or Eric struggling to become a musician, or Layla who keeps picking the bad boy, or Peyton who needs to grow up and accept responsibility for his mistakes. Despite all these difficulties, Dessen's message at the end is one of hope as her characters gradually work through their problems and move on to happier times. There's a dose of realism too as Dessen reminds her young readers that life can't always be happy.

Saint Anything is simply a wonderful summer read for teens and those who love young adult literature!!

Book Details:

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen
New York: Viking       2015
417 pp.

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