Apr 7, 2010

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

Annabel Greene’s life seems perfect from the outside. She’s smart, popular, beautiful, and works part-time as a model. Until, that is, the summer when she has a fall-out with her friend Sophie—and her knowledge of what Sophie does to those she turns against makes her dread her return to school. Meanwhile, at home, her seemingly perfect family is very nearly falling apart. When school starts, Annabel makes friends with Owen, who is rumoured to have been arrested for beating someone up and always spends his lunch breaks alone glued to his iPOD. With the help of Owen’s friendship and of his absolutely demand for honest communication, Annabel manages to begin to break the silenced that has always surrounded anything of importance in her life.

Just Listen manages to do a rare thing, which is to be a book packed full of issues that absolutely does not read like an issue-book. This is because the story is too layered and the characters too complex to ever be reducible to the problems they’re struggling with. They’re just people, doing the best they can under the circumstances.

I’ve been thinking about this book for over two weeks now – there’s just so much here that is easy to miss. Just Listen is a book full of silences. That was both my favourite thing about it and the thing I struggled with the most. It’s easy to feel almost claustrophobic in the atmosphere of silences and secrets that reigns at Annabel’s house. But then again, that’s part of the point. This is a story about how a dysfunctional family affects a teenage girl’s outlook and the way she communicates with other people, and it’s outstanding because the family is portrayed complexly enough that we can both feel for them and resent their effect on Annabel.

A lot of this, however, is only told between the lines. Annabel is a first-person narrator, and we know from the very beginning that she has her blind spots. She has a hard time saying no, imposing boundaries, standing up for herself, and even fully realising it when people are pushing her too far or demanding too much of her. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call her an unreliable narrator, but she’s definitely a narrator who only tells us so much because there’s only so much she can see (then again, I've just defined “unreliable”, haven't I?). I thought that this – the way the characterisation and the narration work together and hint at other possible ways of reading the story – was brilliantly done.

For example, Annabel is quite forgiving of her mother. She’s a woman who fell apart after her own mother passed away, and after recovering from the deep depression she experienced, she fully invested herself in her three daughters’ model careers because they were the only thing that made her happy. The problem is that her daughters, particularly Annabel, are not all that interested in having model careers. But through a combination of manipulation, emotional blackmail and passive-aggressiveness, she forces them to go on. Needless to say, her mother creeped me out, but Annabel never portrays her in a negative light. She’s not a monster, of course, but even by the end of the book, when all the characters have grown a lot, Annabel still has some way to go until she realises that what was done to her was not okay.

There’s so much I still haven’t talked about – Annabel’s sister Whitney and her fight against an eating disorder, her other sister Kristen and what she learns about communication, Owen and his passion for music, the hints of romance and how respectful and emotionally honest it all is, everything this book has to say about friendship, and so on. I’ll encourage you to read Just Listen instead of going about all of that in excruciating detail, though. This is a moving, subtle and layered story about the value of honesty, trust and open communication – and as someone who may be well out of her teens but still has avoidant tendencies, I can’t tell you how much I loved that these were emphasised.

There’s one final thing I want to talk about, though, only I think it qualifies as a spoiler, so read the rest of this post at your own risk. This includes the quote I share at the end, by the way.

I’m actually not sure how much of a spoiler this really is, because I could tell from the very beginning, when Annabel mentions having isolated herself after what happened to her in the summer, that she was talking about sexual abuse. Perhaps it won’t be obvious to everyone, though. In many ways, Just Listen reminded me of Speak. They’re very different books, and Dessen’s novel deals with a lot more than just the aftermath of sexual assault, but the feelings Annabel and Melinda experience are very similar – which makes sense, as they share many of the same fears of what would happen should they ever tell anyone what they went through. I just love the fact that books like these are being written for teenagers – books that tackle the shame and the terror and the isolation head on, books that encourage abuse survivors to speak out while at the same time not blaming them for remaining silent. These are compassionate, empowering and possibly life-saving books, and I’m just so glad that they exist. On a final note, it’s no coincidence that both have titles that highlight communication.

A passage I won’t soon forget:
Even so, deep down, I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. That this wasn’t my fault and, in a perfect world, I could tell people what happened and somehow not be ashamed. In real life, though, this was harder. I was used to being looked at – it was part of who I was, who I’d been as long as I could remember. But once people knew about this, I was sure they’d see me in a different way. That with every glance, they’d no longer see me, but what had happened to me, so raw and shameful and private, turned outward and suddenly scrutinized. I wouldn’t be the girl who had everything but the girl who’d been attacked, assaulted, so helpless. It seemed safer to hold it in, where the only one who could judge was me.
Why did I wait this long to read Sarah Dessen?

Other opinions:: YannaBe, Book Nut, It’s All About Me, Melissa’s Bookshef, Library Queue, An Adventure in Reading, Book Addiction, the deus ex-machina complex (and other theories), Out of the Blue, So Many Books So Little Time, bookshelves of doom, Reading Rants!

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. I've yet to read a Sarah Dessen book but I do have a few of her titles in my pile. I love reading books that are thought-provoking and that it makes me ponder, and this book is just that. Thanks for the great review, as always, Ana! :)

  2. This book seemed to be everywhere on LIbrarything some time ago. The cover makes the book look so interesting that I was afraid it was going to be unable to make good on that promise. But reading your review made me realise that it's probably everywhere, because it's such a good book.

    You seem to be reviewing so many good books that I could just add the title of the book to my TBR pile as soon as I see a new review is up.

  3. Finally something I have read Nymeth! And I am glad you liked it!

    I totally agree with you, when you say ...
    **I just love the fact that books like these are being written for teenagers – books that tackle the shame and the terror and the isolation head on, books that encourage abuse survivors to speak out while at the same time not blaming them for remaining silent. These are compassionate, empowering and possibly life-saving books, and I’m just so glad that they exist. On a final note, it’s no coincidence that both have titles that highlight communication.**

    Well you are right, I also had the feeling about what had happened to her. But I could actually feel for her so much. And I really felt the struggle Whitney went thru - it was so damn real! And even the eldest... and I can so see her mom's struggle too.. I was so so engrossed in this story.
    You know there was a fear somewhere in me, that took shape when I read about what happened to Annabel's mom when her mom died. Oh my, I felt scared and I knew how it would feel to not have someone to talk to the sundry things in life. I do that with my mom.. i call her everyday in the morning and just talk abt the most mundane things!

    I love your review...and i loved this book.

    I read another one by the same author Lock and key - i liked that one also. I think every book of hers deals with some issue that a teenager might face.. and this one is totally different from Just Listen!

    Finally - the quote is so sad and true!

  4. I have not yet read Sarah Dessen, but she is one of my 16 year old daughter's favorite authors.

    I have Lock and Key on my TBR list as background reading for a possible writing project.

  5. I don't THINK I've read Dessen (though she sure sounds familiar to me...)but your description of the story and writing really reminds me of Jacqueline Woodson...subtle, layered, and covering just about any issue known to man. I need to check this author out!

  6. I love books on dysfunctional families, because they usually seem more realistic to me than the perfect or near-perfect families in a lot of books. It also has to do with the fact that I have come across so many real-life dysfunctional families too. This book looks like something I will enjoy and thanks for the great review.

    ~~~Running to add the book to my TBR~~~

  7. Okay I skipped after you said the rest was spoilers. I'll have to come back and read the rest after I've read this book. I have it on my shelf. One day I'll get to it. As well as the million other books laying around waiting for me... :D

    btw, I like that cover!

  8. Sorry, Ana, that deleted comment was just me...Blogger is being a real pain this morning...said it couldn't post my first comment so I rewrote and then it posted both. :(

  9. ARRRRGH...and now I see it deleted both. Crap. I'll just talk to you about it later when I e-mail you. For now--I loved this review!

  10. Another great review. I don't read much YA fiction - last year only one. This sounds like something I'd have loved (x)# of years ago, so perhaps I'll try it now. Thanks.

  11. This is my favorite Sarah Dessen. I haven't seen this cover though! Very cool. Great review.

  12. There's a lot going on in this book, it seems. Thanks for this great review! I am not sure if this book is for me, but I will check it out anyway!

  13. I love what you said about it being an issue book but actually not being an issue book. I've only read one Sarah Dessen so far (and it was recently!), but it felt the same way.

    I can echo, as well, your statement "why did I wait so long to read her?" :D

  14. One of my favorite books by one of my favorite YA authors. I love the way you break the book down and take us into deeper levels!!!

  15. Another one to add to my TBR list!

  16. Yay an author I've read too! I've only read Along for the Ride but I loved it. I definitely have to add this one to my tbr too.

  17. I've never read any of Dessen's work, but have heard people rave about it. I never realized it was so thought provoking and full of issues.

  18. I like the idea of Janicu's Sarah Dessen binge. If I can get through some of my challenges I might try and devote a month to her. I haven't read any yet,but I keep reading so many great reviews of her books.

  19. I've read whichever two of Sarah Dessen's books were combined to make the Mandy Moore movie "How to Deal" . . . and one other title, but I can't remember which titles I've read. Just Listen's on my TBRs. I'm glad you enjoyed her writing!

  20. Yay for Sarah Dessen! I agree: her books, though chalk-full of issues, don't read like issue books. Though, I'm beginning to wonder if she's one of those authors where the first one you read is the one you like the best.

    Oh, and I love that cover. Very nice.

  21. I'm ashamed to say that I haven't read any Sarah Dessen yet! But I know how many people like her books, and how much praise she gets. Just Listen will definitely be the first book I read by her. Thanks for an insightful review!

  22. I don't think I've even HEARD of Sarah Dessen. Yikes. I'm so out of the loop on stuff!

    This is a great review because I feel like your own struggles dealing with the themes came out- it sounds like a difficult book to read, and it should be, and you respected that.

  23. Ana! I can't tell you how thrilled I am that you loved Just Listen as much as I did. It was my first Dessen read too, and my favorite by a lot. I love all the eloquent things you have to say about the novel, you are so totally right about it all. I love the passage you quoted too.

    If you are looking to read more from Dessen, I *think* if I had to pick a second favorite, I would pick Along for the Ride.

  24. I love books that tackle serious issues without being preachy, so this sounds very intriguing. Thanks for the review.

  25. I've seen this author's name on a lot of book blogs recently. I would like to start reading her books. This one sounds good, I will have to check it out!

  26. ‘Just Listen’ sounds great; I like reading books that can address multiple issues but I don’t like to feel like those issues are being told like a lecture, pushed upon the reader to a point where it almost feels like the writer is trying to manipulate. I’m happy to find out that Just Listen manages to do it and does not read like an issue-book!
    And that passage is absolutely beautiful, thanks for the great review Nymeth :)

  27. I don't know why I've been waiting so long to try Sarah Dessen either. I think I first heard of this author via Melody. I'm going to see if my library has any of her books available. Thanks for the reminder!
    You've read books by Laurie Halse Anderson right? The way she incorporates a lot of timely issues sort of reminds me of the way you described this one.

  28. I just bought my daughter a copy of Speak, and she read it and loved it. I think this book would be interesting for her as well. It sounds very well written and deep, and hopefully I will get the opportunity to read it soon. I have a feeling I will have to wait my turn.

  29. I loved Speak and if this is anything like that I think I would enjoy it too. I like the way you described this as a book full of silences. This one sounds like one I would enjoy and ponder over.

  30. Melody, I think you'll like it a lot.

    Iris: I think I should warn you that I have a bit of a reputation on blogland for uncritically gushing about everything I read :P I don't think I like *everything*, but the hits do outnumber the misses.

    Veens: I really felt for Annabel too, and Whitney, and even their more...you're right, everyone felt so real, and so did their problems. I need to read more Dessen asap!

    Molly, your daughter has excellent taste!

    Sandy: That's definitely a good comparison! They're both just outstanding.

    Aths: As Douglas Coupland once put it, all families are psychotic :P I hope you enjoy this when you pick it up!

    Amanda: Whenever that is, I look forward to your thoughts :)

    Debi: Nothing to apologise for! I got a notification for your original comment and so I read it - yes, please raid Annie's shelves asap :P Sarah Dessen very much IS for you!

    Elisabeth: I'm a big YA fan so possibly I'm biased, but I think it's never too late!

    Tricia, isn't it gorgeous? I just love the UK covers of her books.

    Andreea: There is, but she makes it work!

    Janicu: That sounds like an awesome idea.

    Hannah: I just love how she does that! So many books that deal with these problems end up being over the top or stereotypical. But she makes everything sound so human and so real.

  31. Staci: I can see why you love her so!

    Jeane, I hope you'll enjoy it!

    Bella: It seems that I need to get my hands on all of them :P

    Kathy: She has quite a cult following, it seems!

    Vivienne: A Sarah Dessen month sounds like an excellent idea!

    Bookfool: I didn't actually know there was a movie based on her books! That's weird they combined two of them, though :P

    Melissa: I love her UK covers too! Which one is your favourite?

    Emidy: Nothing to be ashamed of! This is my first too. I hope you like her when you get to her :)

    Aarti: It was huge on blogland a few years back, but it seems that mostly everyone has already read it, so there aren't that many new reviews :P Anyway...yes, it was an uncomfortable book, but then again it couldn't not be.

    Heather: You were right and I should have listened to you sooner :P And thanks for the recommendation!

    Trisha: I love them too!

    Andrea: I think this one would be a great introduction :)

    Lua: Yes, me too! And this is definitely one of them.

    Iliana, I have, yes - but only Speak. I need to read more! I definitely think Halde Andersn fans would love Sarah Dessen too.

    Zibilee: I hope both you and your daughter enjoy it!

    Kathleen - it is! Fans of Speak would most likely love this too.

  32. This is the type of book I so want to read. I have seen it many times in the bookstores, but when I see it again this time I will not hesitate to get it. That last passage in your post is good!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.