Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
Published by Viking Books on April 6, 2006
Genres: [Young Adult] Contemporary, Realistic Fiction
5 Stars, Reread May 9, 2017
– SPOILER free –
In everyone’s eyes Annabel Greene seems to appear as “the girl who has everything” for the fact that she plays the part of a well-liked, popular cheerleader in a television commercial for Kopf’s Department Store. Though in reality, she’s far from that role. At school, she’s shunned by her peers for shamefully stealing her best friend’s boyfriend behind her back at a party last summer. (Though, she didn’t.) At home, her parents are completely oblivious to Annabel’s friendless life seeing as they’re more preoccupied with her older sister who recently became anorexic. With the focus on Whitney, Annabel begins to bury a lot of her thoughts from her family and it becomes a habit. But then she meets Owen Armstrong, a truth-telling, music-obsessed guy. As if his blunt honesty was contagious, she finds that voicing what she really means comes out so easily when she’s with him. But with the help of her and Owen’s comfortable friendship, will she finally be able to finally face the events that happened the night that she and Sophie stopped being friends?
Don’t think or judge, just listen.
After The Truth About Forever, my next favorite Dessen read would certainly have to be this one. No matter how many times I’ve read Just Listen, Annabel and her story still hits me so hard. Readers come across so many relevant topics with this novel (some of them also being potential trigger warnings), such as sexual abuse, anger issues, eating disorders, depression, etc.
I wondered which was harder, in the end. The act of telling, or who you told it to. Or maybe if, when you finally got it out, the story was really all that mattered.
Annabel, the protagonist, can easily be relatable to many readers-not exactly because she’s a victim of sexual abuse but because she withholds a lot of the truth from others but also from herself. The result of her growth screams the message “follow your heart” loud and clear, and I can’t say I don’t love it however hackneyed the saying may be.
It’s also a Dessen trademark to not neglect the supporting cast. She allows the side characters to shine when appropriate.
“I am the middle sister.,” she read. “The one in between. Not oldest, not youngest, not boldest, not nicest. I am the shade of gray, the glass half empty or full, depending on your view. In my life, there has been little that I have done first or better than the one preceding or following me. Of all of us, though, I am the only one who has been broken.”
The Greene sisters don’t have an ideal, perfect sisterly bond, but the very flaws in their relationships were what made these siblings feel real to me. (Because, being an only child, I mostly heard my friends complaining about their siblings when taking about family.)
One weak, one strong. One scared, one bold. I was beginning to understand though, that there were no such things as absolutes, not in life, or in people. Like Owen said, it was day by day, if not moment by moment. All you could do was take on as much weight as you can bear. And if you’re lucky, there’s someone close enough to shoulder the rest.
I don’t want to sound negative or put newer YA authors down, but Sarah Dessen has really spoiled me with her realistic characters and often poignant storylines in a way that I can’t take a lot of the new YA contemporary I read now seriously. Though she incorporates fluffy, cliché moments in her books as well, none of them ever feels less than authentic and believable. All of it is just so very real.
Somehow, she also always makes the most ordinary moments appear romantic and meaningful. I mean, I didn’t think driving through a car wash could be sweet until I read this book for the first time 7 years ago. (I know, it’s insane that it was that long ago.)
“Music is a total constant. That’s why we have such a strong visceral connection to it, you know? Because a song can take you back instantly to a moment, or a place, or even a person. No matter what else has changed in your or the world, that one song says the same, just like that moment.”
And, argue with me all that you want but Dessen is the queen of making contemporary book boyfriends in my book.
I’ve noticed statements where some readers have disapproved of Dessen’s suggestive anti-feminist themes. To me, I’ve never viewed any of the guys in these stories as heroes that swooped in to save the young female protagonists from their problems. Nor have I gotten the message that these heroines need a boy to change or better themselves. Instead, I see these guys as being part of the formula in creating the initial catalyst that helps these heroines challenge themselves but nothing more. The evolvement of these protagonists aren’t immediately after they’ve just met a boy; it’s a slow progression that is believable. Besides, isn’t it normal in life to be shaped by the people around you? I digress with this entire argument, but I guess it bothered me seeing so many reviews that discredited Dessen’s stories for this reason. Though everyone’s entitled to their own opinions, I couldn’t not include my own about this subject.
This is the problem with dealing with someone who is actually a good listener. They don’t jump in on your sentences, saving you from actually finishing them, or talk over you, allowing what you do manage to get out to be lost or altered in transit. Instead, they wait, so you have to keep going.
Anyway, Owen. I had forgotten this until I reread this book, but not once is Owen explicitly described as handsome. And I noticed (and liked) this more than I thought I would. Instead, what made him attractive was purely through his actions. He doesn’t care what others have to say about him but yet he’s a great listener towards the people that do matter.
Music is the great uniter. An incredible force. Something that people who differ on everything and anything else can have in common.
It almost feels wrong to talk about Owen without mentioning music. What I hadn’t noticed before when I read this many years ago is that this a book has music as an integral part of the story (at least to how it brought Owen and Annabel closer), BUT the characters actually don’t play any instruments. Instead, they’re simply just avid listeners (with an eclectic taste in Owen’s case). And I actually really loved catching this this time around.
There comes a time when the world gets quiet and the only thing left is your own heart. So you’d better learn the sound of it. Otherwise you’ll never understand what it’s saying.
I could continue to gush about this book but I won’t since this review is long enough as it is. After singing (only part of) my praises about this title, I guess it couldn’t be more evident that I so enjoyed this reread. Just Listen truly is as good as I remembered it to be. And, needless to say, I highly recommend this YA contemporary classic to those that haven’t already picked it up.
Quotes were taken from a finished review copy.
Thank you Penguin Random House for the finished review copy of Just Listen, as well as inviting and allowing me to participate in the 2017 #ReadADessen blog tour. #PRHPartner