Faithful readers of Sarah Dessen will find this novel a marked contrast to her previous works. While Dessen doesn’t shy away from weighty topics, such as physical and verbal abuse and drug use, this book manages to have a darker, graver tone, even though the protagonist isn't the main contributor. The book’s opening scene is a courtroom sentencing. And though the reader isn't immediately informed of the crime, nor the extent of the defendant’s punishment, the reader does experience the sinking fear and even embarrassment felt by the protagonist when watching the outcome of her brother’s crime. The book itself chronicles how Sydney’s family copes with the aftermath…how her father buries himself in his work, how her mother becomes obsessively and oppressively involved in her son’s life in prison, and how Sydney’s brother’s best friend ingratiates himself even more into their lives.
It wouldn’t be a Dessen novel unless there was a potential love interest for the main character. This inclusion is needed to help lighten the mood of the novel’s underlying dark tone. Essentially, Mac and his family provide some form of guidance and respite for Sydney during this time of hardship and personal crisis—support she is not getting at home. Dessen’s clever in not portraying Sydney as someone infallible; and through her, the reader does gain some sense of understanding of how sudden choices and decisions can mushroom into something worse, potentially providing some insight into what drove her brother to make those fateful decisions. There are many conflicts in this book, and I like the fact that the reader is shown active interactions between adults and teens that lead to conclusive resolutions, unlike some of Dessen’s previous books.
As a side note, I wish it was part of Dessen’s style to write from the point of view of a male protagonist. An interesting and compelling story could be made about Sydney’s brother Peyton. As with the character Jason Talbot who briefly appears in several of Dessen’s other novels, there is a lot of potential for character development here. I think both of these characters would make for creative, noteworthy spin-off stories.