Sarah Dessen’s novels are hit or miss for me, and though there were some things I liked, unfortunately I felt something lacking in her latest novel.
As a side note, I made a personal bet to myself before I began this book, wondering how long it would be before I came across the phrases, “cul de sac” and “Really” —a pat phrase all Dessen’s characters love to say. These phrases are a characteristic feature that marks Dessen’s writing, and it always puts a smile on my face when I come across them in her books. It didn’t take long to find a first reference—page 5. ;)
I also rather liked Dave as a character. Dessen is good at creating a strong visual picture of her male leads, and Dave is no exception. Sometimes I even think her male characters eclipse her female leads, who tend to fall into the same teen Barbie doll category in terms of looks and behavior. In a way, Dave has his own connections to past Dessen characters, in terms of the problems those characters’ faced. In this novel, Dessen seems to put more focus on Dave. He has his own set of problems that he needs to overcome, much the same as McLean, the main female lead. Ultimately, I found Dave’s story the most interesting part of the novel, though it certainly isn’t the main focus.
McLean’s characterization is rather weak when placed against Dessen’s other female leads from her previous works. Dessen seems to draw too much from those other characters and how they face change, that it almost feels like you’re rereading one of those previous books. I was hoping for more development away from those similar themes Dessen tends to draw from—those feelings of anger, despair, fear, etc. resulting from divorce, remarriage and the prospect of new siblings. Though to be fair, I do feel that Dessen seems to have changed one aspect of her story. In some ways, I think this novel is darker than her previous works. If you go beyond a surface reading of the text, McLean still seems inherently troubled, trying her best to grasp at something she wants to believe will last. It made me wonder what might happen if the worst comes true.... Though given, Dessen’s previous novels, I really doubt she would want to make the story turn in that direction.
Regardless, at the end of the book, I really wished Dessen chose a new focus. The irony is the fact that Dessen did have a good subject to choose from, i.e. the reappearance of Jason Talbot, Macy’s boyfriend from The Truth About Forever
. Jason underwent a major change from the last time he made his appearance. However, Dessen never really takes the next step to answer the questions, what happened and why? I can’t help but feel that the answers to these questions would have made an excellent main focus for her novel. Yes, it would have been a marked departure from the usual, forcing Dessen to focus on more personal aspects of the themes of identity and crisis; but it would have offered a different kind of introspection and character self-reflection that I think Dessen could easily pursue. I know Dessen’s focus is on high school life, but I think issues regarding what can happen during college can be important as well—even for a young adult reader to consider.